The Encyclopedia of Witches & Witchcraft by Rosemary Ellen Guiley

Read: 17 August, 2008

Overall, I’d say that this book is fine if taken as fiction and read for pleasure. If you are interested in serious scholarship regarding the history of the occult, this book would really only serve to help you with modern/Wiccan perceptions of witchcraft. While it does touch on a number of older subjects, the articles are clearly written from a Wiccan perspective.

For example, “altar” is almost entirely defined in the context of goddess worship, never mind that plenty of patriarchal religions made use of altars in their devotion to male gods (Christianity being an obvious example). The book takes the theory that goddess worship was the norm before it was suddenly replaced by male-centred religion as a given.

Even the entries that don’t display an obvious Wiccan/feminist perspective show dubious scholarship. For example, the entire entry for Patricia C. Crowther talks about her relationship with woman she had been in a previous life – Polly. Polly teaches her some spells. The book says that “Patricia had no knowledge of such spells, which experts determined were authentic.” Well, that’s just sloppy. Who were these experts? Were they experts of Elizabethan magical theory and could therefore say that the spells Crowther had learned did match up with what we know of what Elizabethan witches may have practised? Or were these experts in magic who could tell that the spells were true spells with real magical power? We are never told the type of expert and in what way the spells were deemed authentic, which would change the interpretation of the article a great deal.

And then there were some entries that I just have no way of explaining. For example, the entry on “Gypsies” explains that “their language, Romany, is related to Sanskrit,” but it never says that the people themselves are not called “Gypsies.” They are Romani. This is never mentioned in the entire entry – a very unusual little bit of bigotry for a book published in 1999.

This book isn’t a waste in the sense that I did get quite a few story ideas from it. But if you are doing research for any purpose other than the writing of fiction, don’t bother looking here. And, honestly, even if you are writing fiction, use it only as inspiration, not as an information source.

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