Newswise — Associate Professor of History, Corinne Wieben, Ph.D., teaches the history of magic at the University of Northern Colorado in HIST 264: Magic in Europe from Antiquity to the Enlightenment. 

“On the surface, the course is about magic,” says Wieben. “Dig a little deeper, though, and the course is really about people and power: those who have it, those who want it, and those who want to keep it. As you can imagine, it gets pretty dramatic!” 

In her course, students learn how to understand a society, its power structures and its politics through the lens of magical thought and practices in Europe over the span of 22 centuries. Wieben places a great emphasis on analyzing historical texts and teaching students how to critically review them.  

“Most of the course is building up context around a given text, followed by an analysis of primary sources about some aspect of magic,” she says, “and then seeing what we can decipher about the society from that text.” 

Wieben also hosts a monthly podcast digging into the history of magic, sorcery and alchemy. Her latest episode of Enchanted: The History of Magic and Witchcraft, called The Edges of Civilization, is a Halloween special on werewolf trials in early modern France.  

According to Wieben, the celebration of Halloween on October 31 comes by way of the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain, a festival celebrating the end of the harvest season and the coming of the “dark half” of the year. Samhain marks a moment when the veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead reached its thinnest point, allowing mortals a stronger connection with the spirit world. By the Middle Ages, families in the British Isles observed these traditions and protected themselves against the fairies and other spirits (and those who consorted with them) by burning bonfires, carving lanterns out of turnips, and “mumming,” which entailed wearing costumes and going door-to-door to sing songs to the dead in exchange for cakes and other treats. 

Wieben says because of the idea that mortals could better communicate with the spirit world on Halloween, the date holds particular significance in magical tradition, especially in the fields of alchemy (the refining or transformation of material substances), divination (foretelling the future, often with the help of spirits), and necromancy (magic involving communication with the dead). 

Wieben’s passion for a topic as fanciful as magic is rooted in a love of studying societies as a whole. 

“I realized that in teaching the history of magic, I could incorporate religion, philosophy, medicine, science, and technology because of course, all of those fall under the purview of magic,” Wieben said.