The (Cursed?) Original Book of Witchcraft

 

And so it begins…the title page of Reginald Scot’s 1584 edition of “The Discoverie of Witchcraft.” Rare Book & Special Collections Division.

This article was co-researched and co-written by digital library specialist Elizabeth Gettins, who also had the brilliant idea for the piece.

An ancient tome delving into the dark arts of witchcraft and magic…a book of doom…yet it lives…at the Library of Congress.

You’re forgiven if you think we’re talking about H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional book of magic, “Necronomicon,” the basis for the plot device in “The Evil Dead” films, or something Harry Potter might have found in the Dark Arts class at Hogwarts.

But, as the darkness of Halloween descends, we’re not kidding. A first edition of “The Discouerie of Witchcraft,” Reginald Scot’s 1584 shocker that outraged King James I, survives at your favorite national library in the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room. (The Library has a copy of the original edition, as well as a 1651 edition.)

It is believed to be the first book published on witchcraft in English and extremely influential on the practice of stage magic. Shakespeare likely researched it for the witches scene in “Macbeth.” It was consulted and plagiarized by stage magicians for hundreds of years. Today, you can peruse its dark secrets online. How could your wicked little fingers resist? Scot promises to reveal “lewde dealings of witches and witchmongers”! The “pestilent practices of Pythonists”!  The “vertue and power of natural magike”!

Also, juggling.

It is one of the  foundational examples of grimoire, a textbook on magic, groundbreaking for its time and nearly encyclopedic in its information. Scot’s research included consulting dozens of previous thinkers on various topics such as occult, science and magic, including Agrippa von Nettesheim’s “De Occulta Philosophia,” in 1531 and John Dee’s “Monas Hieroglyphica” in 1564. The result is a most impressive compendium.

The heavens, as used in witchcraft. “The Discoverie of Witchcraft,” P. 283. Rare Book & Special Collections.

But Scot wasn’t lurking about in a hooded cape, looking for eyes of newts and toes of frogs to bewitch mortals. A skeptic, he wrote to make it plain that “witches” were not evil, but instead were resourceful and capable women who practiced the art of folk healing as well as sleight of hand. Their apparently miraculous feats were in no way wicked. He wrote, “At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, ‘she is a witch’ or ‘she is a wise woman.’ ”

Born in 1538 in Kent under the rule of Henry VIII, Scot was landed gentry. He was educated and a member of Parliament. He admired, and may have joined, the Family of Love, a small sect comprised of elites who dismissed major Christian religions in favor of arriving at spiritual enlightenment through love for all. By publishing “Witchcraft,” he meant to expose it as superstition, hoping to better England by forwarding knowledge. Since most people who were accused – and often hanged – for it were impoverished women on the margins of society, he hoped to garner social empathy for them and other scapegoats.

He also hoped to dispel the common belief in magic tricks performed on stage before gasping audiences. To do this, he researched and explained how magicians carried out their illusions. Beheadings? See the diagrams!

Detail from “To cut off ones head, and to laie it in a a platter, which the jugglers call the decollation of John Baptist.” P. 282, “The Discoverie of Witchcraft,” Rare Book & Special Collections Division.

How to appear to “thrust a bodkin (needle) into your head” and survive? See page 280!

Detail on how to use a false bodkin. P. 280, “The Discoverie of Witchcraft.” Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

This noble effort, as the kids say, went left.

The book was blasted by the religious faithful, according to “The Reception of Reginald Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft: Witchcraft, Magic and Radical Religion,” a study by S.F. Davies in the Journal of the History of Ideas, published in 2013. The King of Scotland, James VI, was outraged. Like many of his subjects, he was convinced that witches worked in concert with the devil. He thought a coven of witches was trying to kill him. He published “Daemonologie” in 1597, in part to refute Scot’s work. He also became King James I of England in 1603. There’s a legend that he ordered all copies of Scot’s book burned, but the historical record is silent on the subject. Still, it’s clear James I loathed the book. There was growing concern at the time that women’s use of so-called magic was counter to the aims of the state and church. Thus, James sought to instill fear in female communities and spoke out directly against witches and their perceived occultisms.

“Almost every English author who subsequently wrote on the subject of witchcraft mentioned Scot disparagingly,” Davies writes of the period. Scot died in 1599; the book was not republished during his lifetime. There was an abridged Dutch translation published in 1609, Davies notes, but was not republished in England until 1651, nearly three quarters of a century after its initial publication.

Still, the book survived, “mined as a source on witchcraft and folklore,” and his material on practical magic and sleight of hand “found a large audience,” Davies writes. For Scot’s original aims, that wasn’t good. Rather than debunking stage magic for the masses as he’d hoped, “Discoverie” became a handbook for magicians in Europe and America, well into the 17th and 18th centuries. Famous works such as “Hocus Pocus ” and the “The Juggler’s Oracle drew heavily on “Witchcraft,” thus spreading the very mysteries that Scot had hoped to quell. Davies: “[I]t travelled in directions Scot himself may never have imagined.”

Today, 435 years after it was published, the book sits on the shelf, silent, patient, having done the work its author did not want it to do. It’s almost as if…the thing had a hex on it.

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18 Comments

  1. mel hamilton
    October 30, 2019 at 5:28 pm

    It is without a doubt a very interesting subject that I would enjoy learning a lot more about.
    Example: The Witches that heal the sick, and those that can and maybe did work magic? It’s the what if,this may
    be real knowledge?

  2. Terrie P Kully
    November 4, 2019 at 9:59 am

    This is wonderful!!! Thank you so much for saving this Beautiful piece of history!

  3. Glenn Ferrara
    November 4, 2019 at 1:20 pm

    Very cool. Great job.

  4. Sandra
    June 25, 2020 at 4:21 pm

    Worthless not worth it’s space

  5. Jackie
    July 13, 2020 at 12:15 pm

    i want to be immortal.

  6. lilly
    November 20, 2020 at 10:16 pm

    i think this is gret! i am in love with this.

  7. Janet Outland
    January 21, 2021 at 11:04 pm

    I have family that practice and I want to convert. What really comes first.

  8. Molly
    January 24, 2021 at 1:36 pm

    Thanks for sharing. So interesting

  9. Kristopher Shea
    March 21, 2021 at 2:54 pm

    I would love a copy of that book any wicca or wiccan or pegon or wizard books that you have I want to open a school and teach the art to people

    • Neely Tucker
      March 22, 2021 at 9:32 am

      Hi Kristopher,

      The Library has large collections of books on all these subject. Try our Ask a Librarian service to help you get started. One important note: The Library is a research institution, not a lending library. We can, though, refer you to books to borrow from your local library, or look for elsewhere.

      The link: //ask.loc.gov/

      Best,
      Neely

  10. Rimartic
    April 1, 2021 at 12:19 pm

    Dear friends;
    There’s many many things to say about magic , voodoo &…. but never the less, although there could be powers with spells and magic acts and most people think like;(ok, what’s the bad thing if i be able to use the power for good!)
    But believe me my friends as a person who knows a little about this subject, “ THERE’S ALWAYS A BIG PRICE FOR WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR” and such things never come for good just to help you!!
    NEVER,NEVER Go after dark knowledge. even with a great experience and hard work , first of all you should became full honest with yourself and never go for your own benefit
    And as I said there’s never anything good about magic
    And it “ALWAYS HAS ITS OWN PRICE “ which is beyond what you can expect and handle
    Having pure heart and honest love to yourself and respected relation with creation will bring you way more power than you could imagine
    You will be able to see true nature of others personally and will understand the meaning of your own life and the whole creation reason
    The key is right in our hands, we just have to know it
    The whole magic stuff are just like a baby toy in front of your inner power
    If and only if we could be able to understand it

  11. Elo
    June 8, 2021 at 8:21 am

    Interesting. I recently read that witchcraft books had been published until the sixteenth century in England, that is to say until the big witch hunt.

  12. Danial Hrominchuk
    July 2, 2021 at 9:46 am

    What you have said above is extremely interesting. I have been interested in Witcchcraft ever since reading: 5 steps to becoming a witch. Witches Aren’t Evil, The Truth About Witchcraft, Many Finbarr books on Witchcraft, Some Llewellyn Witchcraft books also Raymond Buckland’s Complete Book Of Witchcraft. That book I just mentioned last says everything one should know or learn about witchcraft. I now use witchcraft very often. it has made my life a lot easier. I know witchcraft does not show instant results. Even the bible says it takes time for all things to occur. Whenever I am low on money. I do a money come to me spell and then a few days after I find money in different places. Once $5.00 on my way to Walmart. A bunch of cash near a bus stop but that was mixed with cigarette butts. Probably many passed by that not look closely at those cigarette butts but I was curious so I looked. I wondered why the cigarette butts were so shiny. it was because of the cash. Obviously some smoker dropped some cash. Almost $15.00 You want money to come to you? Write Money to Money Please Come to me Quickly. AS I want and will so mote it be. (on light green paper using dark green ink. Wrap it up tightly. Then put a dark green string around it tightly. Place under your pillow. Then dream of money coming to you in Various Ways.

  13. Paulus
    August 9, 2021 at 1:59 pm

    Hi my friends

    I have read the wicth craft book and hear more important things. So i could like to have this book, how can i will get it in Namibia please…?

    • Neely Tucker
      August 9, 2021 at 2:48 pm

      Hi Paulus,

      Thanks for writing! If you click on the link of the title in the story, that will take you to digital pictures of each page. If you’d like a copy of your own, most online retailers sell them.

      All best,
      Neely

  14. Soleil
    September 1, 2021 at 6:52 pm

    I watched a movie about the witch and the curse, and guess what? I found myself researching this kind of stuff… how nice…

  15. sandy sterba
    September 9, 2021 at 12:24 am

    I would like to read up on this it sounds very interesting if I may ask if you can send any info from the book I would appriciate any thing you can send me thank you

    • Neely Tucker
      September 9, 2021 at 12:42 pm

      Hi Sandy,

      You can find the book free online at any number of sites, the most prominent of which is probably at Project Gutenberg.

      All best,
      Neely

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