Letter 2: Witchcraft in the Bible

Saul and the Witch of Endor
Frontispiece to Saducismus Triumphatus, by Joseph Glanvill

On to Letter 2 from Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, by Sir Walter Scott.

One of the motivations for writing The Letters was the success of a series of publications called Criminal Trials of Scotland, by Robert Pitcairn. The text covers a selection of criminal proceedings from 1487 to 1624, a period that included many witchcraft trials. Pitcairn actually sent Scott transcripts of trials that were still unpublished, as Scott was writing The Letters; unfortunately, none of them appear in Letter 2, though I’m hoping they might appear in a later letter.

Instead, Letter 2 addresses the Scriptural treatment of witchcraft. Scott’s primary point is that what the Bible calls “witchcraft” and the contemporary understanding of “witchcraft” are two different things. The justification for the execution of witches in Scotland, and in Massachusetts, and elsewhere, was Exodus 22:18 — “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

Many learned men have affirmed that in this remarkable passage the Hebrew word CHASAPH means nothing more than poisoner, although, like the word veneficus, by which it is rendered in the Latin version of the Septuagint, other learned men contend that it hath the meaning of a witch also, and may be understood as denoting a person who pretended to hurt his or her neighbours in life, limb, or goods, either by noxious potions, by charms, or similar mystical means. In this particular the witches of Scripture had probably some resemblance to those of ancient Europe, who, although their skill and power might be safely despised, as long as they confined themselves to their charms and spells, were very apt to eke out their capacity of mischief by the use of actual poison, so that the epithet of sorceress and poisoner were almost synonymous.

He goes on to say (with the appropriate citations) that the Old Testament deems witchcraft a capital crime because it is idolatry — worshipping or asking counsel of false deities — not because witches practice magic, per se.

To understand the texts otherwise seems to confound the modern system of witchcraft, with all its unnatural and improbable outrages on common sense, with the crime of the person who, in classical days, consulted the oracle of Apollo — a capital offence in a Jew, but surely a venial sin in an ignorant and deluded pagan.

The emphasis is mine. Clearly, Sir Walter didn’t put much credence in the accounts of witchy behavior that he read in the trial transcripts. He refers to the accusations later as “disgustingly improbable.” And he was very much against applying the biblical law “against a different class of persons, accused of a very different species of crime.”

The Witch of Endor? Basically the equivalent of the charlatan mediums that Harry Houdini loved to expose, almost a century after The Letters were written. The New Testament? To the extent witches are mentioned (and never in the Gospels), the word seems to have the same meaning it had in the Old Testament.

Whatever may be thought of other occasional expressions in the Old Testament, it cannot be said that, in any part of that sacred volume, a text occurs indicating the existence of a system of witchcraft…in any respect similar to that against which the law-books of so many European nations have, till very lately, denounced punishment; …. This latter crime is supposed to infer a compact implying reverence and adoration on the part of the witch who comes under the fatal bond, and patronage, support, and assistance on the part of the diabolical patron. Indeed, in the four Gospels, the word, under any sense, does not occur…

In other words, neither the Old nor the New Testaments mention anything resembling covens, marriages to Satan, orgies with devils, or anything else that we associate with the term “witchcraft” today. Come to think about it, how can you even have a “Black Mass” when the concept of “Mass” (as the Catholic worship ritual) doesn’t even exist?

The letter goes on to point out that conquerors and colonizers have historically conflated witchcraft and demonology with the religious and spiritual practices of the peoples whom they are fighting or trying to pacify. We’ve discussed this point before, when looking at some of the origin stories for the aswang. I got a bit of a shock when he brought up North America, and the Puritans’ encounters with the powah (or powáw, which my dictionary tells me is the Narragansett word for magician; literally “he dreams”), or native shamans. His reference for this information is the Magnalia Christi Americana — by Cotton Mather.

Scott describes Mather as “an honest and devout, but sufficiently credulous man.” Yeesh. I guess maybe he’d never heard the stories of the Salem witch-trials.

One anecdote for you:

Notwithstanding this inferiority on the part of the powahs, it occurred to the settlers that the heathen Indians and Roman Catholic Frenchmen were particularly favoured by the demons, who sometimes adopted their appearance, and showed themselves in their likeness, to the great annoyance of the colonists. Thus, in the year 1692, a party of real or imaginary French and Indians exhibited themselves occasionally to the colonists of the town of Gloucester, in the county of Essex, New England, alarmed the country around very greatly, skirmished repeatedly with the English, and caused the raising of two regiments, and the dispatching a strong reinforcement to the assistance of the settlement. But as these visitants, by whom they were plagued more than a fortnight, though they exchanged fire with the settlers, never killed or scalped any one, the English became convinced that they were not real Indians and Frenchmen, but that the devil and his agents had assumed such an appearance, although seemingly not enabled effectually to support it, for the molestation of the colony.

The next letter promises to discuss the non-Christian belief systems that contributed to the formulation of the Christian system of demonology. Should be interesting.

More Reading

The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft: A project from the University of Edinburgh about accused witches and witchcraft in Scotland between 1563 and 1736, including a database of all people known to have been accused of witchcraft in Scotland during this period.

8 thoughts on “Letter 2: Witchcraft in the Bible

  1. This is absolutely fascinating – I had no idea Scott got into such rich explorations/debunkings of the idea of witchcraft. Serves me right for never reading him. In my university town, there is a rocky area at the foot of a cliff above the sea, a called the Witch’s Pool (it floods at high tide). It was used for the precise purpose you’d think, trial by dooking.

    1. “Trial by dooking” — I’ve never heard that phrase, though I get exactly what it is.

      I hadn’t realized that there were extensive witch trials in Scotland; being from where I am, when I read this letter my first thoughts were of Salem, Massachusetts and the Puritans. I haven’t had the chance to look at the U. of Edinburgh project, but it would be interesting to plot how the witch hysteria spread from place to place.

      1. Oh check out James VI of Scotland (AKA James 1st of Britain). He was obsessed with witches, and wrote a ‘Daemonologie’ of his own, crying out murder. Funnily enough, he also wrote a screed on the dangers of tobacco, in 1604. “A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.”

        1. Wow. Son of Mary Queen of Scots, the patron of the King James Bible, and, um, chaste regarding women. I never knew.

          I just grabbed the Daemonologie from Project Gutenberg. Of course, I still have’t gotten to the James Hogg novel you recommended — and I want to, I want to — or most any of the other recommendations that have come my way through this blog. So many books!

          1. Since James married Anne when he was 23 and produced three children with her, one of whom became King Charles, he could hardly be called chaste. (This leaves open the question of whether he had homosexual relationships, though).

            Daemonologie is perhaps a forgettable work, except in that it reportedly informed Macbeth. This is even more plausible when one recalls the theory that the King, when he was ruling in Scotland, reportedly requested through the famous “Amicable Letter” that the Bard produce that very play; see this essay by Henry Brown:


  2. My understanding is that in some San Francisco area schools, discussion of Halloween is forbidden; not because it will offend fundamentalist Christians, but rather because it will offend those children whose parents are actual witches.

    1. Theophrastus: I was indeed commenting on the rumors that James might have had homosexual relations. As a side note, doesn’t “chaste” also mean “faithful” in the marriage sense? Not that I was using it that way…

      I will keep your warning about Daemonologie in mind — I have too many books on my plate, anyway.

      And the witch thing — I thought about commenting on Wicca, but it seemed too out of scope for the post. What we call Wicca is also nothing that was meant by the term “witchcraft” in the Bible (by Scott’s argument) anyway, so the general comments perhaps still apply.

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