The word "witches" may cause modern minds to leap to Harry Potter and the fantastical world of Hogwarts, but witches and witchcraft have a real and troubled place in our history. A new anthology, The Penguin Book of Witches, edited by Katherine Howe, takes a close look at that history, compiling shocking excerpts from a number of influential anti-witchcraft screeds and guides from previous centuries. Below is an excerpt from the anthology, taken from William Perkins's 1608 text “A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft.” The passage includes Biblical justifications for the persecution of supposed witches, as well as analysis of what qualifies a person as a witch. In her introduction to the excerpt, Howe notes that Perkins's writings on witchcraft "can be credited with importing widespread Continental beliefs about witchcraft to England" and "were widely read among religious Puritans in the North American colonies" -- no small thing given the witch hunts that plagued Puritan communities in the ensuing years.
[TO THE READER]
Exodus 22.18. Thou shalt not suffer a Witch to live.
This text containeth one of the judicial laws of Moses touching the punishment of witchcraft, which argument I have chosen to entreat of, for these causes:
First, because witchcraft is a rife and common sin in these our days, and very many are entangled with it, being either practitioners thereof in their own persons, or at the least, yielding to seek for help and counsel of such as practice it.
Again, there be sundry men who receive it for a truth that witchcraft is nothing else but a mere illusion, and witches nothing but persons deluded by the Devil. And this opinion takes place not only with the ignorant, but is holden and maintained by such as are learned, who do avouch it by word and writing that there be no witches but as I said before.
Upon these and such like considerations, I have been moved to undertake the interpretation of this judicial law, as a sufficient ground of the doctrine which shall be delivered. In handling whereof, two things are distinctly to be considered. The first, what is a witch. The second, what is her due and deserved punishment. And both these being opened and handled, the whole meaning of the law will the better appear.
For the first. To give the true description of a witch is a matter of great difficulty because there be many differences and diversities of opinions touching this point; and therefore that we may properly and truly define a witch, we must first pause a while in opening the nature of witchcraft, so far forth as it is delivered in the books of the Old and New Testament, and may be gathered out of the true experience of learned and godly men.
Touching witchcraft, therefore, I will consider three points:
What witchcraft is.
What is the ground of the whole practice thereof?
How many kinds and differences there be of it?
Of the Nature of Witchcraft.
To begin with the first. According to the true meaning of all the places of holy scripture which treat of this point, it may be thus described:
Witchcraft is a wicked art, serving for the working of wonders, by the assistance of the Devil, so far forth as God shall in justice permit.
I say it is an art, because it is commonly so called and esteemed among men, and there is reason why it should be thus termed. For as in all good and lawful arts, the whole practice thereof is performed by certain rules and precepts, and without them nothing can be done; so witchcraft hath certain superstitious grounds and principles whereupon it standeth, and by which alone the feats and practices thereof are commonly performed.
If it be demanded what these rules be and whence they had their beginning, considering that every art hath reference to some author by whom it was originally taught and delivered, I answer that they were devised first by Satan and by him revealed to wicked and ungodly persons of ancient times, as occasion served, who, receiving them from him, became afterward, in the just judgment of God, his instruments to report and convey them to others from hand to hand.
For manifestation whereof, it is to be considered that God is not only in general a sovereign Lord and king over all his creatures, whether in heaven or earth, none excepted, no, not the devils themselves; but that he exerciseth also a special kingdom, partly of grace in the church militant upon earth, and partly of glory over the saints and angels, members of the church triumphant in heaven. Now in like manner the Devil hath a kingdom called in scripture the kingdom of darkness, whereof himself is the head and governor, for which cause he is termed the prince of darkness, the God of this world, ruling and effectually working in the hearts of the children of disobedience.
Again, as God hath enacted laws whereby his kingdom is governed, so hath the Devil his ordinances whereby he keepeth his subjects in awe and obedience, which generally and for substance, are nothing else but transgressions of the very law of God. And amongst them all, the precepts of witchcraft are the very chief and most notorious. For by them especially he holds up his kingdom, and therefore more esteemeth the obedience of them than of other. Neither doth he deliver them indifferently to every man, but to his own subjects, the wicked; and not to them all, but to some special and tried ones, whom he most betrusteth with his secrets, as being the fittest to serve his turn, both in respect of their willingness to learn and practice, as also for their ability to become instruments of the mischief which he intendeth to others.
If it be here asked whence the Devil did fetch and conceive his rules, I answer, out of the corruption and depravation of what he is possibly able, against God and his honor. Hereupon, well perceiving that God hath expressly commanded to renounce and abhor all practices of witchcraft, he hath set abroach this art in the world, as a main pillar of his kingdom, which notwithstanding is flatly and directly opposed to one of the main principal laws of the kingdom of God, touching the service of himself in spirit and truth.
Again, the reason why he conveys these ungodly principles and practices from man to man is because he finds in experience that things are far more welcome and agreeable to the common nature of mankind which are taught by man like unto themselves than if the Devil should personally deliver the same to each man in special. Hereupon, he takes the course at first to instruct some few only, who being taught by him, are apt to convey that which they know to others. And hence in probabilities this devilish trade had his first original and continuance.
From “A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft” by William Perkins, 1608.
From THE PENGUIN BOOK OF WITCHES edited and with an introduction by Katherine Howe. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Introduction and selection copyright © Katherine Howe, 2014.