Scholarship of Witchcraft

event-poster-6317120                        Hieronymous Bosch’s The Temptation of St. Anthony, circa 1516

Language Beginnings: The Charged Image

Las Cueva de las Manos is tucked in the valley of the Pinturas River, in an isolated spot of the Argentine Patagonia, accessible via long gravel dirt roads. Here, one of the earliest forms of human art, cave painting dating back roughly 10,000 years can be seen.

There are several forms of art on the cave walls, but at La Cueva de las Manos, or “Cave of Hands,” the hundreds of colorful handprints stenciled on the cave’s walls are the highlight.

Cueva 1

Argentinian Hand Stencils, 10-15,000 years old.

The hand paintings are dated to circa 8-15,000 BC.E

It’s theorized the artists stenciled their own hands using  hollow bird bone-made pipes to create the silhouettes.

Most of the prints are of left hands, indicating that they probably held the spraying pipe in their right hands, since humans have always been primarily right-handed.

The artists used different mineral pigments to make different colors—iron oxides for red and purple, kaolin for white, natrojarosite for yellow, and manganese oxide for black.

There are also hunting scenes and representations of animals and human life found in the cave. The hunter-gatherers who spent time in the caves, perhaps as shelter, perhaps only for ceremonial use, created art depicting the pursuit of prey, the most common of which was the guanaco, a type of llama.

Cueva 2

While La Cueva de las Manos is an important site, the significance of my focus becomes illuminated when turning attention back to the caves of France and Spain.

It’s vital to put this into perspective: This is not just a geographical distance of over 6600 miles, but also spans an ocean, continents, and, most importantly, approximately 30-40,000 years.

Whatever the early inhabitants of Argentina were expressing in the caves is the came message they carried with them from Europe. 

And what is the expression?

Is it a message? Magic? Some kind of spell for good luck in future hunts?

I like to think it’s one of two things, or perhaps an early blended genre.

The first theory is that it records an event that happened and the signature (the stenciled hands) of the participants. I read it like an historical narrative “On this day we were hunted, and we gathered here to celebrate.”

The second theory is that of sympathetic magic, where like produces like. This is also referred to as imitations magic. Draw the llama and it will exist. capture the image of bison and they will be captured in the hunt. Then, why the hand-stencil? To simply record “I was here” and “I mattered.” To make one’s mark is proof one existed.

In the era of digital games and photos and narratives that can all disappear with a power failure, physical evidence of one’s existence in the world is a comforting art.



The Panel of Hands at El Castillo Cave in Spain. Researchers have now dated one of these hand stencils back to 37,300 years ago.


After humans walked out of Africa (there are new theories of mutual evolutionary eruptions in Asia), those who traveled far enough north into Europe became separated during the last major ice age of the Pleistocene Epoch.

During this time major changes occurred to the physical appearance of the humans of northern regions, but our focus is on the art, as it offers proof of our universal commonality.

Humans who ventured north encountered Neanderthals, this is not doubted. But what is in question is to what extent did the two groups intermix? What technologies were shared? What beliefs?

The cave paintings in Spain and France have raised speculation that Neanderthals could have been the earliest cave painters in Europe.

The oldest image, a large red disk on the wall of El Castillo cave in northern Spain, is more than 40,800 years old, according to an advanced method that uses natural deposits on the surfaces of the paintings to date their creation.

The new findings, detailed in the June 15 issue of the journal Science, make the paintings the oldest reliably dated wall paintings ever.

They also push the art back into a time when early modern humans, who looked anatomically like us, co-existed with Neanderthals in Europe. Some researchers think the paintings may predate European Homo sapiens (modern humans), suggesting that the art may not be the work of modern humans at all.

“It would not be surprising if the Neanderthals were indeed Europe’s first cave artists,” said study researcher Joao Zilhao, a professor at the Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats (ICREA) at the University of Barcelona.


Neanderthals have long been portrayed as brutish, animalistic cavemen, but the archaeological evidence suggests they were not.

They buried their dead, created technology by crafting complex tools, and used decorative pigments.

In 2010, Zilhao and his colleagues excavated shells coated in red and yellow pigments from a Neanderthal site in southern Spain. The pigments could have been used as body paint, or paint for the artwork created for us to see today.

Neanderthals went extinct around 30,000 years ago, but hard evidence exists proving they mixed sexually (which suggests culturally as well) with modern humans, who migrated to Europe between about 41,000 and 42,000 years ago. Between 1 percent and 4 percent of some modern humans’ DNA (excluding Africans due to geographical seclusion) came from Neanderthals.

These groups brought with them artifacts which would have roots in the life they left behind in Africa. At one site in Germany with the particularly early date of between 42,000 to 43,000 years ago, archaeologists recently unearthed rudimentary wind instruments, flutes, made of bird bones and mammoth ivory, the oldest musical instruments in Europe.

The age of cave paintings is difficult to pin down. The usual method of radiocarbon dating requires organic material, and most mineral pigments contain none, that is no carbon as we find contained in bones. With very old samples, radiocarbon dating is also prone to contamination.

Zilhao and his colleagues turned to a different method: uranium-thorium dating. As anyone who has seen a stalactite knows, caves are always undergoing slow change. The same processes that create stalactites and stalagmites leave thin deposits of the mineral calcite over some cave paintings. This calcite contains minuscule amounts of radioactive uranium, which decays to thorium over time.

Because the calcite came after the paintings, this sets a minimum age for the art. What researchers don’t know is how long the initial calcite deposit took, so the paintings could be anywhere from hundreds to thousands of years older than the minimum dates.

Researchers took samples from 11 Spanish caves, including Altamira with its painted herds of bison. At Altamira, they found an image of a red horse that dates back at least 22,000 years and a clublike image that is at least 35,600 years old. The club symbol has been painted over with the famous colorful bison herd, which dates to around 18,000 years ago. In other words, Altamira was a popular spot for artists for a very long time.

At another cave, El Castillo in northern Spain, the researchers found primitive art of mind-boggling age. This cave contained the 40,800-year-old red disk. It also sported a hand stencil, created by an artist spitting red pigment over his or her hand to leave a handprint, that dates back more than 37,300 years.

“We simply did not have any dates this old before,” Zilhao said. “Even if this is made by modern humans, we are pushing the age of this stuff by 5,000 years.”

The previous oldest-known rock art in Europe was not a painting, but etchings of likely female genitalia symbols made about 37,000 years ago in France: Think Austria’s Venus of Willendorf.




Hand crafted fertility symbols are nearly universal. It’s easy to disassociate ourselves from these kinds of images as we sit in offices looking at a laptop monitor. I stress the importance of focus to commonalities of humans than differences. By doing so, we learn about ourselves and begin to see a pattern. I will return to this idea.

Back to the European hand stencils: Whose are they? According to Zilhao, a minimum date of about 40,800 years ago for the calcite over the red disk suggests a painting that is even older.

“It is enough that the motif is painted just a few hundred years, just a thousand years, before this minimum age to place it in a time period where there were no modern humans in Europe,” he said.

Paul Bahn, a British archaeologist, agreed that the dates are convincing.

“Certainly for the El Castillo dates, I think there is no question at all,” Bahn told LiveScience. “It has to be Neanderthals.”

Other researchers aren’t as sure. The cave art falls into an era of overlap between humans and Neanderthals in Europe, posits Chris Stringer, the research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum in London.

Early modern human fossils and artifacts have been found in Britain as early as 41,000 years ago, and at the German musical instrument site as much as 43,000 years ago, Stringer, who wasn’t involved in the current study, told LiveScience. That means the cave art isn’t necessarily from a pre-human era. He feels modern humans are still the most likely candidates for the early cave art.

The uranium-thorium dating method that sparked this debate is likely the method that will settle it. The team sampled only a tiny percentage of cave paintings, said study leader Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. There are many more caves awaiting accurate dating.

“I think it’s fairly a straightforward thing to prove if they were painted by Neanderthals,” Pike said. “All we have to do is go back and date more of these samples and find a date that predates the arrival of modern humans in Europe.”


v2-Borneo-cave-painting-hand-printHand Stencil found in Borneo


But it gets thicker: Art history may have to be rewritten after cave drawings in Indonesia – including one of a “pig deer” – were found to be 40,000 years old, older than European art previously thought to be the most ancient, providing the first evidence that our human ancestors were creating art in the region at that time.

84472Located in Borneo cave

The drawings and human hand prints are at least as old the famous prehistoric cave paintings previously uncovered in Spain and France and scientists believe they are evidence of an even earlier dawn of creativity in humans.

One of the Indonesian hand prints, pegged as at least 39,900 years old, is now the oldest hand stencil known to science, according to a new study published in the journal Nature. It is comparable in age to the world’s oldest-known rock art image, a red dot from Spain’s El Castillo site.

Two detailed drawings of animals – the “pig-deer” – and a number of other hand stencils in red are believed to be between 35,000 and 40,000 years old – which is the broadly approximate time frame that the European cave paintings are believed to have been created in.

Most of the artwork was created with a pigment called red ochre and its mulberry colour is remarkably still vibrant. Experts had previously estimated that the cave paintings, which were discovered in 1950, were maybe 10,000 years old.

It wasn’t until 2011 that scientists noticed some strange outcroppings — described as “cave popcorn” — on the drawings. Those mineral deposits made it possible to test the levels of decay in the element uranium. The minimum age. Was found to be near 40,000 years.

“Whoa, it was not expected,” recalled study lead author Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University in Australia.  “It was previously thought that Western Europe was the centerpiece of a symbolic explosion in early human artistic activity such as cave painting and other forms of image-making, including figurative art, around 40,000 years ago,” she told Reuters.

Looking at the paintings, the details on the animal drawings are “really, really well-made,” Aubert told AP. “Then when you look at it in context that it’s really 40,000 years old, it’s amazing.”

The artists made the hand images in the same manner as the Europeans, and as the Argentinians.

Before I move into conclusions, what we should understand is that whether modern humans or Neanderthals making the art in Europe, there is no doubt our species is compelled to make art. To express ourselves. This compulsion, I feel, is driven by the universal idea that to make a mark is to make a type of magic.

Because the European and Indonesian cave paintings date from around the same time, it either means art developed separately and simultaneously in different parts of the world or “more likely that when humans left Africa 65,000 years ago they were already evolved with the capacity to make paintings.” Why do we not find much evidence of this kind of art in Africa? It’s simply a matter of climate and geology that doesn’t preserve it.

We must remember the ancient sets of footprints in the Rift Valley preserved by volcanic ash and the more recent preservation of mummies, wood, and papyrus scrolls of Egypt’s dry climate.

When I look for origins of the British Isles’ “witch” I look primarily to regional folk tales and contemporary indigenous groups that have either witches or shamanistic practicers in their communities for theories.

220px-SheelaWiki      image


Above are three examples of Sheela na gigs, a female figure displaying her vulva, are found primarily in Ireland and Great Britain, but also France and Spain. These symbols are rooted in the human psyche, as ancient figurines with exaggerated female anatomical features can be found around the world.

One such theory is the search for the witch’s sabbath includes “the wild hunt” also known as the Herlathing. I find evidence in Druidic and Celtic horned gods, and spring fertility rites. While seeking the root of the witch’s sabbath, or the witch’s night-flying, I find the wild hunt may be the foundation.

Looking collectively at cave paintings, carved and painted fertility symbols, the horned god, the green man, runes and spirals, I begin to see the pattern. I see the “writing” or textual evidence we have carried with us wherever humans have ventured: In our art.

The wild hunt may also be the catalyst for descriptions given at the Infamous Salem witch trials and the night ride of prematurely dead humans led by a “newly” conceptualized form of fertility goddess: The witch.

From the Celts to the people of the Baltic regions, the outlines of a common Indo-European heritage seem to emerge, all connected to the cult of the dead, the dead (as in all organic material) bringing fertility (think: Native Americans placing a small fish over a seed of corn to promote growth), to sorcery, and shamanism in relation to the different gods of the dead who are linked to shamanism that ensured fertility by way of the dead.

This theory lead to further paths of British Isles mythos worth exploring, such as the thinning of the veil, bands of troupes of fairies and elves roaming the hillsides at night, and female goddesses such as Brigid, and the quirkiness of the idea of an immaculate conception introduced to a people who long understood the cycles of the moon, the seasons, women’s menstruation, and crops.

When our ancestors walked out of Africa they eventually lost the need for melanin in the skin, but as people who lived close to the land and sea, the innate sense for making magical marks, understanding the need for fertile landscapes, and the communal sharing in the hunt was never cast aside.


Textual Artifacts: The Pamphlets


The familiar ‘Sathan’ from John Phillips’s The Examination… of certaine Wytches at Chensforde (London, 1566).

In 1566 a sensational pamphlet was published in London that described the crimes of three women accused of witchcraft in Chelmsford, Essex.

Elizabeth Francis, Mother Agnes Waterhouse, and Jone Waterhouse all confessed to possessing a familiar spirit whom they identified as ‘Sathan.’

This creature, first described as a ‘whyte, spotted Catte,’ then a toad, and finally ‘a thynge lyke a blacke dogge with a face like an ape, a short tail, and a peyre of hornes on his head’ was said to ‘require a drop of bloude’ which he sucked from the accused witches. In return for this blood Sathan brought his mistresses riches and revenge. He killed children and made several men impotent.

He also forced the accused witches to ‘say [their] pater noster [and all other prayers] in laten’. After performing these acts, the familiar spirit betrayed his mistresses by reporting them to the authorities.

This narrative comes from one of the very first witchcraft pamphlets published in England. For the next 170 years, witchcraft remained a state-sanctioned crime for which between 500 and 1000 people were hanged, with many more formally or informally accused throughout the country.

Across the period, popular accounts of witchcraft trials were published in numerous broadsides, ballads, and pamphlets.

In scholarship articles,  I argue that witchcraft pamphlets in particular hold the key to understanding the central importance of the devil, and the role of emotions, in early modern English witchcraft belief, via the terrifying figure of the familiar spirit.



‘Sathan’ while still in feline form.

The role of the devil has long been downplayed in work on early modern English witchcraft, where scholars have traditionally emphasised a preoccupation with non-demonic maleficia (or harmful magic) on the part of accusers that stood in contrast to the concern with diabolism (devil worship and the formal pact with Satan) that characterised Scottish and continental witch-hunts.

Yet, I argue even in England his function was crucial, with fully sixty-three of the sixty-six surviving pamphlet accounts of witchcraft trials highlighting the link between a witch’s pact with the devil and his or her (but, in 90% of cases, her) ability to perform evil magic.

Now, when I talk about the devil, I imagine most readers might visualize a suave gentleman with cloven feet and hooves, perhaps even with a sharp-looking beard, like something from the 2016 film, The Witch.



This image of the devil does appear in English witchcraft texts (perhaps most titillatingly on the frontispiece of Nathaniel Crouch’s 1688 tract The Kingdom of Darkness, which depicts an urbane devil looking rather apathetic while being fellated). However, far more common is the devil’s appearance as a small, tangible, domestic, or common creature known as a familiar spirit.

familiars_3A suave and disinterested devil in a salacious detail from the frontispiece of Nathaniel Crouch’s The Kingdom of Darkness(London, 1688).

The familiar spirit was unique to England, and is still a common element of pop cultural representations of witchcraft today (think of Hedwig or Cruickshanks from the Harry Potter series, or Salem Saberhagen from Sabrina the Teenage Witch). However, one element of the familiar that has been lost in translation to these modern depictions is its frightening true nature. Although it took on a rather harmless-looking, even charming form, familiar spirits were believed to be the devil or agents of the same. These creatures appeared to witches and attempted to convince them to give their soul to Satan, who they often themselves embodied.

familiars_4Four familiars appear in this illustration from the anonymous pamphlet The Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower (London, 1619).

Although familiars generally appeared in the shape of normal, domesticated beasts – such as the ‘whyte, spotted Catte’ that originally attended the Chelmsford witches – others were more exotic. A talking familiar with a head like an ape appeared at the foot of one witch’s bed in 1618.

Another, although initially described as a hedgehog, was complicated by the description that it was ‘as soft as a Cat.’

Another similar familiar appeared as a hedgehog with a face like an owl.

Two more familiars, Grissell and Greedigut, were described as being ‘in the shapes of dogges with great brisles of hogges haire upon their backs.’

One mole-like familiar appeared normal until it spoke in a hollow voice. Similarly, cats tormenting a woman appeared rather mundane until they cried out like young children.  Others portrayed distinctly devilish characteristics, such as a dog with cloven feet. Perhaps most sensational was the creature who chose to appear as a bear, horse, cow, and even a dragon.

familiars_5A startling hedgehog owl hybrid from the anonymous pamphlet A Detection of damnable driftes (London, 1579). British Library, London.

So what was this malevolent menagerie used for?

In early modern England, potential witches joined forces with the devil in order to act on their powerful emotions, most notably a desire for revenge, hatred, malice, anger, and fear.

Entering into a Satanic pact meant that, in exchange for the witch’s soul and regular doses of blood (which the familiar sucked from teats hidden on the witch’s body), the familiar would do the witch’s bidding, mainly harming people on their behalf, acting out their appetite for revenge, or implementing other malicious desires.

However, this was not a purely pragmatic arrangement.

Many pamphleteers, accused witches, and witnesses all reported observing or experiencing strong emotional bonds between witches and devils via these animal intermediaries.

Some accused witches were even believed to care for their familiars by making them beds out of cotton wool and feeding them milk, as well as the customary blood.

familiars_6A witch spoon-feeds three familiars in this illustration from the anonymous pamphlet A Rehearsall Straung and True(London, 1579). British Library, London (Public Domain Mark 1.0).I

In conclusion, I argue familiars play a crucial analytical role, highlighting both the demonic nature of English witchcraft and the way in which emotions operated as key drivers within witchcraft narratives.

We can view the familiar spirit as an emotional conduit, that is to say an entity that allowed the witch to seize power and act on her powerful and uncontrolled emotions.

By tracing the types of acts that witches asked their familiars to perform, we can gain insight into the anxieties, fears, angers, and long-standing hatreds that simmered in early modern England’s villages and towns.

Moreover, through their strong emotional bond with the witch, they provide another way in to inner lives; they allow us to further understand and indeed to significantly amplify the role of the devil in popular conceptualizations of witchcraft in early modern England, and provide a new lens on the many day-to-day tensions that precipitated and characterised so many accusations.



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