Review: The Weiser Field Guide to Witches

This is a very readable book, nicely produced by Weiser, and I recommend it for readers with any interest in witchcraft, witchcraft history, the occult revival, or witchcraft and the occult in modern media. It is slated for general availability on October 1, 2010 (just in time for Halloween!)

It is an extensive catalog of persons, places, and things, physical, mythic, and liminal, related to witches. A major subtext is teasing out the various influences that might affect our semantic response to the word “witch”; this is why the catalog runs from ancient times to the present and over media from clay tablets to the Web. This author has done several books in a similar style (THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF 5000 SPELLS, The Encyclopedia of Spirits). Every reader will find some entries here that surprise. After a while, reading this book begins to seem like collecting shells on a beach on a good day: there are enough really fine specimens that you keep right on plugging past the scallops and clams.

Generally, the entries are written in a compact encyclopedia style, striking a good balance between detail and readability. They are generally well-researched, judging from the fact that the ones I know a lot about didn’t contain any obvious howlers, giving me more confidence in the ones I came in knowing less about (there are some issues with the material on Lilith, but that is the fault of 10th century commentator Ben Sira, et al., not Judika Illes).

There are a couple of minor omissions in the modern literature. Since the author promotes serial media (mainly comics) into its own section, the banal and silly comic “Broom Hilda” should probably have been mentioned. One might actually be tempted to make a fairly extensive comment on the fact that this long-running comic, with its title character being a stereotypical witch, but sympathetic, funny, and about as evil as Sgt. Bilko, is another major step away from witch hysteria. I was also surprised not to see the charming children’s book Strega Nona mentioned, since it is a sympathetic and positive portrayal of a witch that predates Harry, Ron, and Hermoine by quite a few years.

The encyclopedic core of the book is wrapped with some interpretive material. In the first chapter, specialist readers will be less thrilled with the discussion of distinguishing witchcraft in general from Wicca (pp. 30-32): the author states categorically that all Wiccans subscribe to the Wiccan Rede; refers to “the Rede” as being only the eight words at the end (“An it harm none, do what ye will”) when it is actually a 52-line poem ending with this aphorism; mistranscribes the ending as “Do what you will but harm none”, which is semantically different; and mistranslates the word “rede” as “rule” rather than “counsel.” Rather than pick this apart even further, I will refer the interested reader to the classic “Wiccan Rede Project” site, originally by Shea Thomas and archived at web.archive.org.

Chapter 9, Travel Tips for Witches (having nothing to do with broom maintenance or flying ointments) collects a number of witchcraft museums, historical sites, etc., with a brief introduction to each. You might find something here you really must see.

The book ends with a breezy little essay on how you might know if you are now or potentially a witch. It skims through historical and witch-hunter lore and mixes in the more relevant psycho-spiritual indicators. While there’s nothing really wrong with it, it doesn’t do a very good job of wrapping up the book, and I would actually advise skipping it, since I do recommend the book otherwise.

[Legalities: Thanks to the publisher for the free review copy, opinions are all mine, blah, blah]

The Weiser Field Guide to Witches
From Hexes to Hermione Granger, from Salem to the Land of Oz
Judika Illes
ISBN: 9781578634798
Book (Paperback)
Weiser Books
$14.95
4 3/4 x 8
272 pages
October 1, 2010

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About freemanpresson

Celto-Cherokee Pagan, Priest, Frater of the Church of the Hermetic Sciences, sometime writer, astrologer.
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One Response to Review: The Weiser Field Guide to Witches

  1. Rune says:

    Especially since Strega Nona was a Caldecott Honor winner and IIRC the rest of the books in the series were nominated for awards as well.

    And yeah, the section on the Rede probably would bug the hell outta me, although considering how many authors (many of whom claim to be Wiccan themselves) are clueless about the Rede, I’m not surprised.

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