Witches, Demons and the Occult: New history class teaches unusual subjects
In an effort to keep Michigan State students interested and enrolled in history and humanities courses, professor Mark Waddell proposed a new class that covers witchcraft, alchemy, astrology and other related topics.
Waddell said history and humanities courses tend to have less enrollment after students complete their prerequisites and university requirements in the department.
His proposed course, HST 293: Witches, Demons and the Occult, was approved and became an official class after going through multiple committees.
The course was offered for the first time in the spring 2019 semester. Next semester will be its second go.
“I study premodern European history, so I know this history really well and I thought, ‘Why not a class on demons and witchcraft and the occult?’” Waddell said.
This class isn’t exactly what Waddell is used to teaching.
As a professor in the Lyman Briggs College, he usually teaches more classes that people majoring in sciences will find relevant.
“There is some science in (the class), but it’s really more history of ideas and cultural history as well,” he said.
His teaching methods have had to change for this magical class. He said the class grants him the freedom to explore further ideas in the history department.
“When you study the history of science before 1700s, which is what I do, everything kind of melds together,” Waddell said. “Science, and religion and magic — they’re all part of one big melting pot. I was exposed to a lot of that history very early on in my training.”
While the 50-person class is mostly lecture-based, Waddell said he encourages class participation.
A recent, typical trend found on social media is a growing interest in supernatural phenomena and astrology. From television shows to movies, the interest continues to grow.
“Last year we spent a lot of time talking about New Age religions today and ideas about magic that are circulating through popular culture,” Waddell said. “We spent a lot of time talking about how some of this history has evolved over time into what we have today.”
The class offers the opportunity for individuals interested in spooky themes to explore the topic further under a historic lens.
“I think people come into the class already quite interested in some of the stuff,” Waddell said. “Last year I had students who ... were practicing things like Wicca or other New Age religions, or were interested in things like demon summoning and all this fun stuff.”
Waddell said the spring 2019 class was composed of individuals with a lot of interest and knowledge about the things they were learning.
“They were able to relate to some of the material and we were able to have interesting discussions about history and why history matters and why it still is reflected in some of the shows we see on TV or some of the movies that are out there, or some of the things that we see in popular culture surrounding some of this stuff,” he said.
The class covers alchemy, astrology and the overall history of witchcraft in Europe.
Beyond covering magic-related histories, the class also discusses the overall culture of premodern Europe.
Waddell said he tries to relate the class to more current times and religions, pointing out that there are still people who practice alchemy or Wicca today.
“I think the topic appeals to a broad range of people,” Waddell said.