New Haverford Professor Brings Witchcraft, Astrology, and Alchemy to the Classroom

Archive by Erudera News Dec 21, 2005


HAVERFORD, Pa., Dec. 21, 2005 – Find your horoscope, tell me what it says, tell me if its accurate, Professor Darin Hayton tells a classroom full of students after handing out Todays Horoscope from The Washington Post. One student raises her hand and begins to read: Aquarius. Dont wait for the spirit to move youmove the spirit instead. The stars help you enlarge your sphere of influence. Social gestures may feel forced at first, but with a little practice, youre soon delivering with finesse. Another student, a Taurus, discovers that If you think too much about whats in store, its likely to scare the dickens out of you! Jump right in, and get going without a lot of deliberation. Once youre in motion, everything works out.

Hayton, a new assistant professor of history at Haverford, doesnt expect the horoscopes to be accurate. He intends to contrast them with the detailed horoscopes that learned astrologers created in the 15th century. Hayton and his students are knee-deep in the astrology section of one of Haverfords newest courses: History of the Occult and Witchcraft.

At the culmination of the semester, Haytons students will have studied the history of witchcraft, astrology, and alchemy, having focused on the turbulent 15th through 17th centuries. Hayton hopes that his course will change the way the students view this time period: I want the students to take away a richer understanding of what the 15th through 17th centuries truly were like. This course certainly challenges the standard understanding of this periodthe period of the Renaissance, of the Reformation, when humans shed their cloaks of ignorance and slavehood to the Catholic Church. Hayton believes that current scholars who study witchcraft and occult sciences have perpetuated a host of misconceptions about the roles of these sciences throughout history, including a belief that ones daily horoscope is related to the science of astrology.

According to Hayton, any practicing astrologer today, any practicing astrologer of 500 years ago, would have giggled at the daily horoscope. It has almost nothing to do with astrology. Its organized by one small facet of the astrological edifice. The astrology section of Haytons course touches upon todays misconceptions, including a belief that only the ignorant masses of the 15th century believed in astrology. Hayton aims to answer a host of questions in the astrology section of his course: Why is it that in 1500 so many people believed in astrology and what does it mean to say that somebody believed in astrology? Who were these people and what exactly were they referring to when they used the term astrology?

While studying witchcraft, Hayton and his students look at various themes, including magic, the visual representation of witchcraft, issues of gender, and issues of religion and its relationship to witchcraft. Hayton believes that approaching the study of witchcraft through these themes allows him to confront another set of misconceptions about this area of study: I want to dissuade people from a handful of what I fear are still very common assumptions about witchcraft in the past: that the people in the past were stupid for believing in witchcraft, that all women were witches, that one religion had some monopoly on persecuting and killing witches, that the Inquisition was a part of this picture, and that witchcraft beliefs and persecutions were uniform throughout Europe.

Hayton blames widely respected venues, such as documentaries and The New York Times, for perpetuating misconceptions about witchcraft. Hayton cited a documentary he showed in class called The Burning Times, which chronicles the era when witches were tried and persecuted. In the documentary, an expert stated that as many as 9 million people were persecuted as witches. The obvious problem I have with this, says Hayton, is that the movie is billed as a documentary. We assume that documentaries are going to be faithful to the historical record, and we assume that they are going to be authoritative. But the number 9 million is egregiously exaggerated. If we are lucky, we are going to get a number in the neighborhood of 50,000. Additionally, while many people believe that an immense number of people were persecuted in the Salem witch trials, in reality over the span of 100 years only 185 were accused and 19 were executed.

In a recent New York Times article, a writer stated that current scholarship now suggests that 40,000 to 60,000 were persecuted, but he also repeated the 9 million claim. For Hayton, this poses a problem because people are going to remember the 9 million claim. It’s more sensational.

In a section on alchemy, Hayton wants to combat the notion that alchemy was that ridiculous activity people did until they invented chemistry. According to Hayton, some of the most fortunate and intelligent people in the late 16th and early 17th centuries were alchemists. He hopes that studying the history of alchemyhow it was invented, who became alchemists, why alchemy was a widely respected sciencewill help elucidate the widely held notions that people held regarding scientific practices during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Hayton notes that both witchcraft and astrology have experienced a resurgence in our society over the last 15 years. Indeed, one will find a number of articles in well-respected newspaperssuch as The New York Times, The Boston Herald, and The Chicago Sun-Timesthat cover topics ranging from the history of witchcraft, to neo-pagan revivals of witchcraft, and the current state of astrology in the wake of the discovery of a potential 10th planet. In 2000, Kepler College in Lynnwood, Washington, received bachelor of arts and master of arts degree authorizations from the Higher Education Coordinating Board of the State of Washington. Kepler College is a liberal arts institution with a curriculum that includes comparative astrological studies. As Hayton notes, to understand the way these historical sciences are affecting our current society, we must look at them through a historical context: Im interested in the history of science as opposed to contemporary studies because I dont think we can reasonably talk about the issues that arise when we are embroiled in the science the way that we are when we do science studies.

Hayton hopes that his class will help students understand the current societal interest in occult sciences and witchcraft through an exploration of its place in history. He also hopes that students will apply the questions they confront in the course to the current society. He notes that an ambiguous societal notion of science holds special authority in our society, like astrology and alchemy held in the 15th through 17th centuries. The authority and command of science that science is given today is something that I think we really need to examine as a society. We need to reflect a bit more on why it is that scientific advisors to the President seem to carry the day. Why is it that scientific witnesses in courts of law are more believable than a monk who meditates? Why is it that scientific medicine is more believable for most of the 20th century than more holistic or naturalistic cures?

Citing a specific example from his class, Hayton recalls talking about torture methods that were used to incite confessions from accused witches. During the late medieval or early Renaissance period, the court structure was modified so that one could not convict a person of being a witch without either having a witness or a confession from the accused. Because there were never eyewitnesses, those who carried out the laws developed a range of torture techniques to encourage confessions. Today we may think that it was total ignorance that led these people to take those confessions seriously, that we cant find any truth in them because they were brought out by coercion and torture. People would confess just to stop the pain. Its non-threatening for us to make these assessments when we are talking about women who were tortured in 1510, when we are talking about men who were tortured in 1614, saya Hayton, But when we really think about the ways in which torture was used to provoke confessions then, we can turn to questions that we are dealing with today. The CIA and the Department of Defense are currently revising, or trying to get out of revising, different forms of interrogationwhich is really a euphemism for tortureto meet the Geneva standards. Hayton hopes to prove that the problems societies confronted in the past have not disappeared.

Back inside the classroom, Hayton emphasizes how societal misconceptions regarding the past have modified how we view occult sciences. Hayton spends 30 minutes drawing a replica of a 15th century horoscope that would have actually taken hours to complete on the board. Comparing the elaborate horoscopethat was drawn using mathematic charts, astrological maps, and intellectual knowledge of the science for one specific person for a specific moment in timeto The Washington Posts daily horoscope, Hayton proves that the daily horoscope certainly does not represent the labor of true astrologists. Ive known five people who wrote horoscope columns. Only one of those people had been a practicing astrologer. Three of them wrote horoscope columns as undergraduate English majors, Hayton recalls.

Although he stresses that the horoscope does not represent true astrology, Hayton is guilty of reading them: Theyre fun to read. Sometimes they give you a laugh. Hayton, a Cancer, discovers, when you lack the excitement to get going at work, muscle up and do it anyway. Higher-ups are watching your every move. Its how you perform when you dont feel like performing that counts. Luckily for Hayton, he truly is excited about teaching this course, which he hopes to offer again in the future, perhaps every year. It seems that the higher-ups will have to find another Cancer to keep an eye on.

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