(It should be noted that this book is almost entirely about historical/anthropological witchcraft; it contains very little information relating to modern Neo-Pagan religious Witchcraft and/or Wicca.)
'Witch: The Wild Ride from Wicked to Wicca' is an engrossing, entertaining, and lavishly-illustrated essay which aims to trace the figure of the witch from the middle ages to modernity. Although it is in large part scholarly and well-researched (it is published by the British Museum Press after all), it is still highly accessible as a leisurely read.
There is definitely a woman-centered focus to the work, but while the lens through which the author approaches the material is often palpable, it is understandable and even justifiable by the nature of the historical information itself. The branders of witches and witch-hunters themselves specifically targeted women, and they promoted a worldview which demeaned women as spiritually weak and morally inferior to men, viewing females as agents used to taint the more righteous gender. The primary resources of that era makes those ideas quite clear. The quintessential witch is always envisioned as female. And, of course, the proportion of women arrested, tortured, and/or killed under pretense of witchcraft verses that of men is undeniable. Thankfully though, the author does not go so far as to paint the witch persecutions as the "women's holocaust" and she rightfully identifies the figure of nine million individuals killed during the infamous "Burning Times" to be inaccurate. Overall, I found it to be a highly enjoyable, informative book, however, it definitely has its faults.
The author asserts that medieval intellectuals and theologians essentially invented the witch as a diabolical threat to the order of the Christian universe in order to deliberately accomplish certain social and political goals: "For a start, this scholarship suggests that the idea of the female witch was largely the work of spin doctors. Rather than emerging authentically from medieval folk culture, the witch was the brain child of theologians, lawyers, and other intellectuals who (with the deepest sincerity) conjured her up to satisfy their own political and cultural needs."(9) While the author certainly presents ample evidence that those intellectuals did give the specter of the witch greater definition as an individual who had made a pact with Satan to obtain supernatural powers, fully outlining her role, her habits, her demeanor as well as how to deal with her upon capture (even artificially projecting their definition onto the distant past), they could not have invented the witch whole cloth. I found it odd that there was no mention of etymology whatsoever, even when the modern religious incarnations of Witchcraft as a constellation of Neo-Pagan belief systems are briefly touched-upon. The word "Wicca" is simply thrown into the mix in the last chapter without any sort of background information as to the origin of the word and its original meaning as the Old English word for witch (specifically a male witch as a female witch was referred to as a wicce). No real effort is made to discern what "witch" implied before said paranoid, misogynist intellectuals took hold of it in the dark ages to mark a peculiar sort of heretic. They did not invent a word to label her from thin air, so there must have been some raw materials, however nebulous, to work with in the first place. Unfortunately, Savage does not even attempt to investigate that material; she only accompanies the witch from the middle ages onward, and the middle ages, understandably so, occupy the majority of her attention.
Another significant disappointment arises in the last chapter where the author hopes to address contemporary Neo-Pagan religious Witchcraft. While the previous chapters show signs of rigorous research on the author's part (evidenced by the bibliography and quotations from primary source material), the last chapter seems to have fallen by the wayside. Her overview of the modern Witchcraft movement is regrettably simplistic and one-sided, and in this particular case her chosen feminist lens proved to be extremely exclusionary of fundamental information which did not tie in nicely with the woman-centered thread of her book. For instance, she defines Wicca as "feminist witchcraft" and considers it only as a dimension of the "feminist spirituality movement." Her quoted primary source material on religious modern Witchcraft stems from only two books, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Goddess: 20th Anniversary Edition and Dreaming the Dark : Magic, Sex, and Politics, which are by the very same author no less. While there is most certainly a very strong feminist current to some modern forms of Neo-Pagan Witchcraft, including some strands of Dianic Wicce which are explicitly women-only groups and Starhawk's own ecofeminist Reclaiming Tradition, it is inaccurate and short-sighted to label the entirely of Witchcraft as simply a permutation of "feminist spirituality." One gets the impression from her writing that Witchcraft in the modern religious sense only arose in the late 1960's and early 1970's, a suggestion that is at least a decade too late. She completely ignores the true roots of Neo-Pagan Witchcraft in what is referred to these days as British Traditional Wicca, and absolutely no mention is made of important (male) individuals including Gerald Gardner, Alex Sanders, Robert Cochrane, Raymond Buckland, etc. The omission of Gardner is especially grave since she devotes an entire chapter to Margaret Murray's thesis; I would have imagined that Savage would have turned up some information on him if only because Murray wrote the foreword to Gardner's seminal book Witchcraft Today. One might also think that since Savage was familiar with Ronald Hutton's books Stations of the Sun and The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, both of which she cites under the heading "Witches and (Neo)Pagans," that she would also be aware of his highly relevant The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, but apparently not . I was also puzzled by the fact that significant works of literature relating to witchcraft including Leland's ARADIA: Gospel of the Witches and Michelet's 'La Sorcière' were only mentioned in very brief captions and not within the bulk of the text itself.
Despite these drawbacks though, 'Witch' is still a worthwhile, concise overview of the witch in history. It is especially valuable for the information it provides on the medieval and renaissance witch persecutions.