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 Pitcairn actually sent Scott transcripts of trials that were still unpublished, as Scott was writing The Letters; unfortunately, none of them appear in Letter 2, though I’m hoping they might appear in a later letter.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.”