Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology by Russel Hope Robbins

I grew up in a house full of books. Thanks to Dad’s voracious appetite for popular fiction, and Mum's school teacher's instinct for filling the house with improving volumes, our house was like a Greek temple held up by unsteady columns of glossy volumes on history, art and cheap paperbacks and that never got thrown out, but were packed three deep in bookshelves that lined the living room, dining room and all the bedrooms.

This was my treasure trove, rooting though the shelves looking for something new and exciting and generally finding it, at least up until I was older enough to get out to the library or the bookshop myself. It's during these expeditions that I discovered Isaac Asimov and Michael Moorcock, and the fat anthologies of Golden Age SF that Dad devoured at a rate of two a day. I found all manner of intriguing non-fiction - Pelican English histories (a bit dry for me); slightly outdated large-format histories, especially of the ancient world, and occasional gems such as the Encyclopedia of Demonology and Witchcraft.

An actual pact with the devil (or devils),
signed and everything, scared me
shitless as a kid!
I remember this book scaring the hell out of me when I was a gullible kid. I didn't really read it too closely (I was probably under eight when I found this one) but the historicalm illustrations and the copious information gave me the impression of a world that was alive with malignant evil magic going back centuries. I loved all this sort of stuff when I was a kid - UFOs, Loch Ness Monster, Satanists, ESP, Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle and that whole Charles Berlitz world of wierdness, magic and active, malignant supernatural evil.

I can vividly recall being scared shitless by the idea of The Exorcist when it first came out. I remember being driven to near-hysterical tears one night when we were being looked after by a baby sitter who described the movie to me and my sister. What sort of baby-sitter is that? I don't recall where my older brothers were at the time - probably laughing their arses off in the other room.

Well, I've matured somewhat since then. I was a right little skeptic (with a k!) for a while at Uni anmd afterwards, but I think my views have mellowed a bit since then into a more ruefully agnostic state. I don't really believe in it, but I think the world's a sweeter place if we admit the possibilities rather than angrily declaim that it's all falsehood.

I'm not sure if Mum and (more likely!) Dad's copy is still on the shelves at Mum's place in karori - I've looked for it before and not found it - and so when I found a copy in a (rather nice) second hand bookshop in Much Wenlock while I was on holiday and I knew I had to have it. Reading it now is a very different experience, of course.

Robbins (who, the cover notes, is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature!) takes a properly materialistic view of the subject, and provides a series of authoritative entries on various historic, thematic or biographical subjects. He seems particularly keen to emphasise the injustice of it all, men and women falsely accused by the mad or the wicked, physically and mentally ruined through torture then put to death. I can't help seeing the shadow of The Crucible here, both as a thematic inspiration but also perhaps as inspiration to the publisher who might see a market of people keen learn more about the subject in the wake of the Miller's play.

Young boys always have a healthy interest
in torture.
Of course, witchy stuff was VERY popular in the sixties - Rosemary's Baby, Corman's Poe adaptions, The Witchfinder General and The Devil Rides Out and so on and so forth - but this book must have taken years to compile. Robbins works dutifully from primarty sources - boasting somewhat about his visits to the world's great libraries in the the introduction - so this is no slap-dash quick cash grab trend exploitation.

Neither does it provide a trendy 60s New Age gloss on the subject. It focuses on witch hunts and Christian-based deviltry, rather than the wider questions of esoteric thought. There's nothing here on occultism or Rosicrucianism, nothing on ritual magick, the Golden Dawn, Crowleyite magic or Gardnerian Wicca. It's focused entirely on the medieval witch cult, from about 1300 to about 1700 - and early or later examples of witchiness are pretty much ignored - maybe one or two entries on Biblical and classical sources, but nothing after the last of the witch hunts in Europe.

I don't know why I love this stuff so much. When I first discovered this book - I was maybe six or seven - I was too younf to read the entries, but revelled in the pages of illustrations showing demons, witches and gruesome tortures, and lets not forget the eroticism inherent in the subject - I've never forgotten the sexy basque witch on p 41.

Yeah, definitely interested in
this sort of thing.
A more interesting question is what was Dad doing with it? There's not really another book like it that I recall from my childhood - most of the non-fiction was sober and solid, dealing with ordinary history, usually from a populist point of view, often connected with a big exhibition like the several volumes on Tutankamun, or tv shows - Ken Clarke's Civilisation, The Ascent of Man, Life on Earth etc etc. If this book was published in the late sixties, that'd put Dad in his early thirties when he (and I've no doubt it was him, not Mum), bought this. What was he thinking? Why did it interest him? How has this interest passed on to me?

It's only when they're gone you get curious about these things. He's gone now, and I'll never be able to ask him about this. Would he really be able to tell me? He wasn't really a self-absorbed type and I don't know if he's have had any interest in the discussion anyway. I guess it'll just have to be one of those things that I'll never know about him.


  1. Wow, that's fairly interesting. I was an avid porer over such things myself, as well as books about ghosts and hauntings. Scared myself shitless. Oddly enough, as an adult I'm very careful not to give myself the willies by reading/ watching disturbing material when vulnerably alone or in an odd place.

    Er, ...

  2. Ah, you'd love this one. I think the serious tone with which the outrages and tortures are described is just the right one to tickle your fancy.

    Remember the Amytiville Horror? The book of that one scared me, too. I think being shit scared of this type of thing is one of the joys of adult hood. I don't know that kids would fall for Satan in the same way in this secular age.

    I've seen a couple of ghosty movies recently that gave me a shudder (The Orphanage was great) that would have had me crawling up the walls as a kid. I'm looking forward to showing my kids their first proper horror, although they both found Gremlins a little eerie - good bit of kiddy frights!

    I've been pondering if Lou's old enogh for Alien actually. Maybe I'll give him this to look through and see how he reacts...

  3. I did indeed read TAH. I saw Jay Anston or whatever his name was on TVNZ. I was so horrified yet delighted by the weird stuff he was saying that I wrote to TVNZ asking for details of the book. They didn't write back-which I remember thinking was shit- but saw it in Whitcouls a year or so later and got it.

    I don't know what it is about TAH thing that got to me. I think it was the weirdness and anomolous events. The fact that people heard a band procession the house, frex, or that it was possible to see from one part of the house to another despite intervening walls/stairs. I mean what does that mean? It's quite unsettling!

    That odd stuff-I am still not quite sure why this is the case- somehow made the story more plausible. I have theory about this... ready?

    Adam and Joe were having a discussion a couple of years ago on one of their failed gigs (I feel sorry for those guys), when Joe mentioned his interest in Bigfoot. When he was in the States he went on a bit of a mission to see where the Bigfoot thing was going. He had been excited by a TV programme that claimed to have collected evidence of bigfoot activity-a footprint and some fur or some such. Now the interesting thing was he then explained that he had later suffered the scorn of old schoolmate Louis Theroux for this fascination: 'what chance, out of a hundred, so you think there is that Bigfoot exists?' he had apparently asked with ill-concealed contempt.

    But I understand Joe's interest. When you confront the big question as to whether BF actually does exist, of course the answer has to be pretty much, no chance at all. But there are weird intermediate steps that somehow do seem plausible. Imagine that the fur had been found to have been genuine, and that of an unknown hominind. More possible, somehow. Or at least the brain perceives it to be the case, because it doesn't yet have to make the next step...

    Hence my fear of haunted houses and jiggery pokery of that sort even when I am pretty sceptical about the supernatural by nature.

    Another AH story. This one is a bit odd. I went to see the recent version of TAH in 2005 or whenever it was that it came out. the film wasn't bad imo, and had been shot so as to be scary-jumpy and shocky-in a cinema environment. I was mildly traumatised when watching. I went home and turned on the TV, and the first thing I saw was a scene with a couple of younsters chatting in a room, with the the odd, curved half window of the Amityville house at the back of the shot. it was the 1970s version of the same film being televised. It was very odd.

    I also wrote a review for Time Out which is no longer there...

  4. Fortean Times types talk about a thing (as I'm sure you're aware!) called "high wierdness", which is a collection of inexplicable shit that has no rhyme or reason. TAH read like high wierdness to me (in retrospect) rather than a trad devil-oriented haunting, and that's maybe what makes it so spooky. I ghost appearing after a murder or something is the sort of thing we can process and get our heads around. Swarms of flies and rooms of blood appearing at random are sick things that worry at our (fragile!) peace of mind.

    I wonder if all this type of phenomnea is actually flavours of high wierdness, and the way it's categorized into ufos, ghost bigfoot or whatever is just a human construct.

    It's all rather Lovecraftian!

  5. This is why I loved West Wycombe. there was the hilltop itself, an old iron age fort, with it's weird church (photo of a ghost on the church notice board, mural in which Judas catches the eye, legend of the devil having built the church). John Wilkes had had his heart interred in the mausoleum nearby. But when Steve and I went exploring in the next closest church we discovered that Lord Edward Windsor, a former Lord, also had his heart interred in the church's crypt (he was supposed to be buried in Venice-in the heretics cemetery).An old man told us how a boy had been lowered into the crypt on a rope and had seen the old coffins under the church. nearby was a dried up pond where a dragon had supposedly been sighted in the 19C. There were ABC sightings. The local airfield had a system of underground bunkers in case of nuclear attack. We came across other iron gae forts in the trees. A lost village. the local pub was haunted-a famous haunting that had been recorded in a number of books-by a murdered woman. A hoax-a report of a 19C visitation by aliens had been perpetrated uisng the name of the local village green. Ahhhh! weird stuff.

  6. This book is not to be taken lightly:

  7. Hi Richard,

    I absolutely agree that the commentary in Robbins book is shocking. All the horrendous executions and the indefatigable illogic of the with hunts is chilling, and, as history shows us, this was not the last time that hysteria like this afflicted supposedly humane societies.

    If I appear to take the subject lightly, that's just because finding this book again inspired me to think about about other matters. The points in your blog are well made!

  8. I can't believe I wrote 'it's' as a possessive pronoun. Please for God sake post this as a correction!


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