Article body

Years in the making, Making Witches: Newfoundland Traditions of Spells and Counterspells delves into archives and memories to explore an underrepresented aspect of Newfoundland folklore. As the title implies, Rieti sees witches as being “made,” having that designation applied by others when circumstances and behavioral anomalies leave them marginalized and thus open to suspicion within the community. She problematises the term “witch” by recognizing that the “quintessentially dyadic scenario” of witch and victim is in actuality “a one person affair” (3) wherein the victim/accuser asserts the power of the mainstream over the marginalized witch, resulting in alterations to perceptions and treatment of the “witch” within the community. While the witches themselves do not generally seek the appellation, they may embrace it once so labeled because with it comes the power to alleviate circumstances of poverty in a community that offers little in the way of social services. Throughout the text, Rieti is sensitive to her own uncertain role in this tradition as she amasses narratives about witches, but is able to include the voice of just one individual who self-identifies as a witch.

The book is divided into three parts, each successive section more tightly focused than the previous. It begins with “Witchful Thinking: An Overview of Patterns and Themes,” which surveys various aspects of witch-related narratives and traditions in Newfoundland. These include economic factors within isolated communities having limited resources, the influence of seers and prophesying for those who make an uncertain living from the sea, as well as accounts of male witches and unlucky “jinkers” who bring misfortune in their wake. She also addresses social and gendered aspects of witchcraft manifestations, some of the psychological implications of spells and measures for retaliating, and the wariness of European settlers regarding the potential for magical consequences should they offend native traders. Citing primarily Mi’kmaq examples in the latter subsection, Rieti is careful to “emphasize that settlers are the source of almost all the available material” (54) and that Mi’kmaq accounts have yet to be examined. This section also looks at the supernatural traveling abilities of Jerseymen wishing to visit their homes in the British Isles, the “black heart” or “black art” books thought to convey power to their owners, and touches briefly on the intersection of witchcraft and religion, concluding that among the people she interviewed and the evidence she examined, “Narrative and experience, not theology, supply the best evidence for most people” and that she sees “witching as essentially an areligious phenomenon” (71). Rieti groups these diverse examples together because the various individuals discussed draw their identity as wielders of supernatural power from the people around them, who used “templates of proven utility to produce stories that were malleable according to need, belief, and desire” usually in response to “a breach of social accord” (78). This exploration provides solid groundwork for understanding her more detailed investigations of witches and their communities.

The second section of the text, “Hagridden Barrenville”, narrows its focus and looks at interrelated neighborhoods in an area believed to be “infested” with witches, and how the size of the town affects how witches acquire the label. Because Rieti found particularly extensive data referencing the area of Barrenville, she pursued fieldwork there and discovered that it is not only in small, isolated communities that witch traditions flourish. Barrenville is a substantial and prosperous town with a broad repertoire of witch lore. In fact, Rieti believes that the town’s size contributes to sustaining and promoting the witch tradition there. The variety of neighborhoods allows for social distance between individuals who scrutinize one another, leading to the assignation of traits according to preexisting templates and traditions. The author also postulates that “the town’s size also supported a kind of conceptual formulary in that recurring ideas, motifs, and expressions abound” (80), a redundancy of detail that would wear thin in a less populous setting. This section includes accounts of certain individuals from different informants, though these details are not as inclusive as in the profiles in the third portion of the text.

In the final and shortest portion, “Triptych: Three Portraits”, Rieti presents data about specific individuals who have been singled out as local witches within their communities. Described as “assemblages” because Rieti drew on whichever sources mentioned them, in order to flesh out the data, these are admittedly incomplete sketches of the “witches”. The subjects here are women and, surprisingly, one provides invaluable firsthand information by agreeing to speak with the author. Rieti provides fuller images of the lives of these women, as well as their character traits, behaviour, and the circumstances that prompt the community’s response to them, whether positive or negative. They are wives, mothers, healers, fortunetellers, counselors, undertakers, and markedly forthright. As Rieti puts it, “All three were outspoken, sometimes to the point of aggression or offence; their words, even when benign, broke the bounds of ordinary discourse” (149). These profiles are solid, but the fading of traditions in Newfoundland regarding witches is evident in the gaps that the reader might like to see filled.

On the one hand, the organization of the book works well, with the increasingly specific examples and narratives leading the reader deeper into the details for a more thorough understanding of witch traditions, spells, counterspells and prophecy as they manifest in Newfoundland. On the other hand, the extensive examples and data in the first section, which comprises the first half of the book, are in striking contrast to the ever shorter chapters which follow. The short coda at the end only adds to this effect, giving the book an overall front-loaded feeling and imparting the sensation that it has simply trailed off. This is, however, more of an aesthetic concern than a significant deficiency and does not detract from the value of the study. This is a fascinating text of interest for its perspectives on gender, marginalization, belief, and the social pressures that intersect with all of these to form a rich and enduring tradition, albeit one with a distinctly darker side.