Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

  • Author: Owen Davies

A writer’s guide to witches in pop culture [timeline]

From The Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter, witchcraft is a linchpin of contemporary fantasy writing—with each writer applying their own twist. Referencing The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, we’ve put together a timeline of pop-culture’s most well-known depictions of witchcraft.

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The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic

The art of witchcraft: six illustrations [slideshow]

Witchcraft dates back 5,000 years to the beginning of writing. Its history offers glimpses into the human psyche and has excited the minds of artists, playwrights, and novelists for centuries. Referencing The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, we’ve pulled together a slideshow of six fascinating facts about the history of witchcraft.

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The feminist roots of modern witchcraft [excerpt]

Throughout modern history, witchcraft has been predominately practiced by women. Historically, women were considered more likely than men to partake in magic due to their inherent moral weakness and uncontrolled sexual nature. Unsurprisingly, as witchcraft spread throughout the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, it captured the interest of the growing feminist movement.

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Witches and Walpurgis Night

In modern British and American popular culture, Halloween is the night most associated with the nocturnal activities of witches and the souls of the dead. But in much of Europe the 30 April or May Eve, otherwise known as Walpurgis Night, was another moment when spirits and witches were thought to roam abroad. The life and death of Saint Walpurga, who was born in Dorset, England, in the eight century, has nothing to do with witchcraft or magic, though.

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Shakespeare: living in a world of witches

Since he was born a year after the Witchcraft and Conjuration Act of 1563 brought about the era of the witch trials in England, it is hardly a surprise that witches and witchcraft would come to feature in Shakespeare’s work.

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The real world of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Some reviewers of the first episodes of the current BBC1 adaptation have dismissed it is over-blown fantasy, even childish, yet Clarke’s characters are only once removed from the very real magical world of early nineteenth-century England. What few readers or viewers realise is that there were magicians similar to Strange and Norrell at the time: there really were ‘Friends of English Magic’, to whom the novel’s Mr Segundus appealed in a letter to The Times.

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Magic moments

The recent battle between religion and science conducted in the media, spearheaded by Professor Richard Dawkins and other high-profile figures, has garnered much international attention. The debate is not new of course; it stretches back several centuries. One aspect of the debate that receives less attention today is the issue of magic: a concept which is inextricably linked to the history of science and religion. The notion of both science and religion as magic is as relevant today as it ever was.

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