Witchcraft in Rural Slovenia
Podcast with Mirjam Mencej
Interviewed by Hannah Lehtinen
Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.
Hannah Lehtinen (HL): So, welcome to the Religious Studies Project. My name is Hannah Lehtinen and we are currently in Turku. It’s early morning and it’s relatively cloudy.And with me is Mirjam Mencej from the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. And she is the Professor of Folklore Studies at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology there. And her accomplishments include, but are not limited to, numerous articles and six published monographs on various topics related to vernacular religion, folklore and witchcraft, which is what we’ll be discussing here today. Professor Mencej’s latest volume, which will be out later this year, is called Styrian Witches in European Perspective. It’s based on her ethnographical work in the rural areas of Eastern Slovenia and it deals with witchcraft from a variety of angles. So welcome, Mirjam. It’s great to have you here today.
Mirjam Mencej (MM): Good Morning. Thank you for inviting me.
HL: So, we might just begin with, witchcraft. As we saw yesterday, the lecture was a huge success.
MM: Thank you
HL: But witchcraft probably brings up lots of different images and ideas of what we are exactly dealing with. How would you define witchcraft, in the context of your own work?
MM: Well first, let me answer the first part of your question. Indeed witchcraft, nowadays, appears in many guises. It has become a commodity, really. Witches flood the movies, the internet, the journals, the books – even cook books! Women dress up as witches to partake in Halloween parties. And, actually, it has become a trademark of radical feminism, etc. But all these witchcrafts have nothing to do with what traditional witchcraft is about, which I actually researched in this Styrian area of Slovenia and lectured on yesterday. Traditional witchcraft was typically set in more-or-less, small-scale, close-knit, face-to-face agricultural communities. And witchcraft, in fact, served as an explanation of misfortune: interpreting the source of personal misfortunes as the consequence of another’s malevolent agency. So the basic premise in witchcraft, is that the origin of misfortune is social. And the person responsible for misfortune is understood to be the witch. Now, when misfortune occurs, people usually seek culprits amongst their close neighbours or immediate vicinity, their immediate environment. And especially close neighbours were particularly feared in this regard. In most ethnographic areas, sometimes, also foreigners feature in witchcraft, but this is much less typical than the neighbours – particularly close neighbours. And it was, basically, their envy that was particularly feared. And, actually, they represented a constant threat of possible misfortune.
HL: Yes. And how did you end up studying witchcraft, actually?
MM: This was more-or-less by accident! In summer 2000 I arrived with a group of my students to a [rural region] in Slovenian Styria. I mean, Styria is a wider region, really, and this was a part of the Styrian region. (5:00) And our aim was to conduct fieldwork in order to help the local institutions’ mission to promote local heritage, really. So, what I hoped for was, basically, the etiological legends, related to some features or plants, or caves or some buildings in the region, etc. Yet, knowing that these kinds of legends tend to be rarer than the so-called belief narratives or belief legends, I also instructed my students to ask about witchcraft, the dead , and the supernatural in general. Now when the groups met, in the evening, to share the results of their first day of fieldwork – and also all the following evenings – one thing became clear: that the topic in the region was actually witchcraft. And so after that, we just continued to focus on witchcraft. And actually, really encountered plenty of people who still believed in witchcraft, and some even still practised witchcraft – although we never witnessed any of these practices. But, obviously, some people still buried bones or eggs on their neighbours’ property in order to do them harm. And some people even still understood witchcraft as an institution – actually they relied on witchcraft as an institution, explaining the misfortunes that befell them.
HL: Exactly. And this area, where you were conducting your study, could you describe it a little bit. It’s very remote?
MM: Yes. Actually this is a very remote area, with poor transport connections. The farms are small – the land divided into small parcels. And the people mainly engage in subsistence agriculture. Our interlocutors were mainly old people, because mostly older people lived there. Because most of the younger generation just moved into the cities or usually migrated somewhere. And, in fact, this is the region that is – in the frames of Slovenia – still a synonym for backwardness, and remoteness, and poverty, really. But the region where we were doing fieldwork was even more impoverished until the ‘70s. The ’70s brought some changes into the life of the population, for instance: electricity and water supply became available to more households than before; many houses were rebuilt; free medical care became available even to farmers; and several factories and tourism facilities were established at the periphery of the region – this actually offered some job opportunities to people living in the region, which consequently triggered daily migrations of part of the population; and also the improvement of the roads and transport facilities.Better roads also allowed for the use of tractors, which improved agricultural yields, etc. This was also the time when television started to make its way into rural households. And all these changes consequently triggered the loosening of the bonds of close communities and changed the social life in the villages. Now in our area, the key setting for the communication of witchcraft narratives, and also the basic context in which theses narratives were narrated and evaluated, was always “shared work”: the time when people gathered together in this or that house to shell beans, or pluck feathers, husk corn and do similar work. And with these economic changes and other changes like television etc, this basic setting was over. There was no such thing as common work in the evenings. And this, consequently, actually caused the witchcraft discourse to start losing its adherence and communal support. So, people did not have this framework anymore within which they could discuss witchcraft. I mean, they obviously still managed to find ways to tell narratives about witchcraft and even to practise some sort of magical practices, (10:00) but this basic setting was over, and they could not talk publicly about it as they used to do.
HL: So it wasn’t quite as accepted anymore, perhaps, as an explanation?
MM: Not generally accepted. They definitely were still able to talk about it within the family circles, or with some of the neighbours that still believed in witchcraft, but it was not an overt practice to discuss it anymore.
HL: So when you said that witchcraft sort-of struck you, when you were doing the fieldwork, as something really to focus on . . . . Did people talk about it very openly, or was there some reservation?
MM: No, generally people . . . yes. Generally, they had no problems talking about witchcraft overtly, although some did use . . . some did try to, somehow, hide their beliefs from me or the students – at least at the beginning of the interview. They would often start talking about witchcraft like: “No, I never heard about witchcraft! I don’t believe in witchcraft”, and similar. But then, after a while, they would just tell you a great story about their own involvement in witchcraft, or their discovery of bewitched items or their visit to a fortune-teller, who acted as an unwitcher inthe region, and so on. You know, like Jeanne Favret-Saada, who wrote a fascinating book on French witchcraft, understands this as a kind of reconciliation between their witchcraft discourse and the assumed rational discourse of the researcher . . . as a way to reconcile these two, at least at the beginning. There was no problem, really. It was quite a topic that croppeed up more-or-less by itself. We didn’t really expect it to be there or to find it.
HL: We already touched upon this, but perhaps again: how would you define witchcraft, in this context? What is it? And what is a witch?
MM: Well as I said, basically, the answer you would get from anthropological research, would be: “a witch is a person who is considered to be doing . . . to use some supernatural means to do harm to others. So, basically, the idea is witchcraft is a social thing: the origin of witchcraft is social. If a misfortune befalls you, basically there is a human being – usually from the same community – that is supposed to have caused it, right? But in fact, I actually defined in my book various layers of witchcraft and various types of witches. And I think one should actually pay attention, during the research, to different types of witches. Because, if you don’t, the answers can be a bit confusing. Basically, I would say, there is this social layer of witchcraft that anthropologists often research. But within it one could actually distinguish between a “neighbourhood witch” – I call it a neighbourhood witch, some would probably call it a social witch – and the “village witch”, that some researchers called the “scapegoat witch”. Now there is a difference between these two. The neighbourhood witch was mostly blamed for the misfortune that befell the neighbour. So, you assumed your neighbour caused the misfortune that befell you by either, for instance, burying bones or eggs on your property or by praising your child, or your livestock – there are various modes of bewitching, I can discuss this later, perhaps – but on the other hand, the village witch was not necessarily blamed for any misfortune, although some village witches, of course, get a reputation based on the general consensus of their harmful activities (15:00) – usually born out of envy – which is typical for the neighbourhood witch. But also, [there are] other reasons that have nothing to do with this accusation of causing misfortunes and are more or less related to some stereotypical notions about a witch, like: if she looked ugly, unkempt or old, of course, this already was a strong sign that she could be a witch. Or, moreover, if she behaved quarrelsome, if she quarrelled a lot, if she was inquisitive, this was even more likely to cause a reputation. If the family in which . . . . Well, if her family was proclaimed to be related to witchcraft, like for instance, if her mother already had such a reputation, the reputation was likely passed over to her daughter. Because it was also generally believed that a mother transmits her knowledge to her daughter. Or, if her father owned magic books, or a magic book – and it was usually men who were believed to have these books – his daughter would also kind-of inherit such a reputation. And sometimes they would even judge about who the village witch is, according to the way she died. So a person could acquire a reputation even after her death. Like [if] something unusual happened during the funeral, she was likely[to be] recognised as a witch afterwards. Or also, any extra knowledge – something that others would not know, but she allegedly knew – likely, also, could cause a reputation. So this was a social layer of witchcraft. But there was another layer, which I would tentatively call a “supernatural layer”, that anthropologists often skipped from their research. And it was also not always necessarily present in the regions where the fieldwork was done. These are witches that I call “night witches” because they usually appear at night, often in the shape of some flickering lights, sometimes invisible, and usually causing people to lose their orientation, to get totally disoriented in the forest and to get lost. Often, the same deeds and the same shapes and appearances are referred to: fairies, or the souls of the dead, or any other supernatural entities within European folklore. Anyway, in our region, they were always called witches. And while they had no. . . they did not do any economic damage, they were still blamed for misfortune of another type: they caused people to lose their way, to spend the night in the forest. And sometimes, subsequently, they were recognised as a certain person from the community. Not always, but sometimes people would say, “Yes, I recognised those witches that looked like lights” – it’s always plural – “during the night”. And the next day they would scold them or threaten them. So there are differences. There are differences in the discourses between these social and supernatural layers; there are differences in the manner of protection and the attitudes towards the different witches; also the attitude toward the neighbourhood and the village witch was different, right? So [there are] many differences, and yet people would talk about these witches in the same breath. If you asked them about witches, they could either answer with the response that referred to neighbourhood, village, or night witches.
HL: Well it seems pretty obvious – from general depictions of witches, and also from what you’re saying – that witches were often considered to be women, or it was to do with women?
MM: Yes. Actually, in our region, it was mostly women, except for, basically, one category of village witch which also encountered men. (20:00) As I said, those men basically that possessed – or allegedly possessed, because one couldn’t check, right? – the magic book. They were mostly men. And men could sometimes appear as witches, also, when they severely transgressed social norms, like in the case of blasphemy or cursing and drinking heavily. But this was really seldom. Mostly, it was women.
HL: Can you think up any reasons why it would be?
MM: Well, actually, this is quite historic. This has historical roots. Women were always related to witchcraft. This idea that women were connected to, well, night and moon, but also to magic, are ideas that spread up already in antiquity. So there is a strong connection in this notion in traditional ideas, I would say. But also during the witch trials, several historians pointed out that women were often regarded as somehow more prone to be able to be seduced by a devil, they were weaker, and well, actually, all theses accusations somehow reflected the misogyny of the period, right? Also, women were often proclaimed witches when they were old and when they were in the period of menopause, which was related to the idea about menstruation: that, while they still have their menstruation they can kind-of purify themselves and, afterwards, they could not do that any more. So these bad fluids just prevailed in their bodies. And there are many reasons, of course. Widows and unmarried women were among the first targets of accusation, also. One [reason was] because their status was unclear and, in the early modern period, the idea about a woman was to be married, to have a man by their side, this strong patriarchal approach to looking at the role of women in society. And, on the other hand, it was also their weaker position in this case: they had no social . . . they did not have a husband who would perhaps protect them, in this regard, against the gossip, against the accusations.
HL: Exactly. So these witchcraft accusations could also act as a very powerful tool for social control.
MM: Oh definitely, yes. Actually, the narratives themselves acted as a form of social control. People tried to behave in a way that they could not possibly be accused of witchcraft. So, yes, definitely this is one way to look at witchcraft.
HL: Another interesting category that you bring up in your work is the so-called “unwitchers”. So could you tell us a little bit about them, and how they belong into this dynamic of the witchcraft discourse?
MM: Yes well, unwitchers, or some would probably call them “counter-witches”, or “unbewitchers”, were an important figure in this triangle of victim, witch and unwitcher. In our region, it was fortune-tellers that acted as unwitchers in the sense that they could counteract the bewitchment, and act in the direction to identify the witch responsible for the misfortune. (25:00) Now, the people would usually [approach] unwitchers [if it was] the case that many misfortunes happened in very different areas of their life, or household etc. And unwitchers would, actually, first . . . well the first step in their procedure would usually be to proclaim the misfortune as a result of witchcraft. And in further steps they would usually try to annihilate the bewitchment by various instructions that they gave to their clients, and to identify the witch. Because the identification was crucial in this regard. It allowed the client to face their opponents, to materialise something that was abstract, beforehand. And, in the end, they also offered a possibility of the redirection of this bewitchment, or the evil, back to its source, which, of course, people usually didn’t like to accept. Well, basically, in my book I argued that the main role of unwitchers was in helping, especially women, to . . . well, one thing was to help them in times of economic insecurity, when their household were not prospering. But the basic thing was to help women maintain their social position in times when it was endangered. Because women were basically evaluated according to their work: how they managed to do the household works; were they successful in this regard? And if they were not, their social position was strongly threatened and in this case they actually needed, I think – at least in our region, that’s the way I understood the situation – they needed the unwitchers to help them transpose or relocate the blame from themselves to the outside witch, or to somebody else and thus help them maintain their social position. Because it was not them that was to be blamed for the misfortunes that befell the household, but some outsider coming from the other household – coming from usually the same community, but not from within the household.
HL: So, identifying some kind of enemy, or some kind of cause, from the outside was very crucial?
MM: Exactly, yes.
HL: We already mentioned that if, for example, the livestock or in some other way the livelihood was endangered, this would be one reason to suspect witchcraft. Could you mention some other cases or situations where this witchcraft discourse, or the accusations of witchcraft, even could be invoked?
MM: Well, the main targets of bewitchment in our region, were livestock, really. Now this is a different situation than the one I encountered in Bosnia – where I just recently did three months’ fieldwork – when witchcraft is mostly directed against people, against their wellbeing and health and jobs etc. In our region, it was really mostly livestock – sometimes small children, but basically livestock – that were the main target of bewitchment. But, of course, there were other situations where people could use the witchcraft discourse to their benefit. And it was not necessarily related to their personal belief in the proposition. Many, many situations, many circumstances, could . . . . In many circumstances, witchcraft discourse could be used for people to save face, for instance, or to give an acceptable explanation to the family, or to the community at large. And I can just give you some examples, for instance, a young man was unable to work, to find a job, to search for a job. A young man who, actually, withdrew himself from society and was probably suffering some sort of depression or perhaps some mental illness.(30:00) The explanation , in terms of witchcraft, was actually a suitable explanation at hand for a family to give to the community at large which, probably not understanding the depression as a serious mental state, would proclaim him an idler or perhaps even blame his family for a failed upbringing. And, on the other hand, this helped the family to cope with the situation, to understand and to accept their son’s position. Also, for instance, when marital quarrels appeared, when a couple quarrelled and suddenly. . . and then one story told by a certain interlocutor . . . . Suddenly, when a woman threw her husband out of bed, she said, “at that moment I saw a toad under the bed. And I trampled her, I destroyed her and the next day I saw a woman in the village who lost her leg just at the same time.” Now this is how they recognised that it was that woman that was transformed into the toad and this was a general notion in our region that witches can either transform into toads, or sand toads. Actually, she recognised the witch that transformed into a toad by her losing a leg in the same moment. And there are many such circumstances that actually allowed people to use the witchcraft discourse, especially when they’d transgressed social norms., you know: having spent a night in the forest after a night drinking, you could just say, “Night witches carried me away so I couldn’t find the way out of the forest”; or, it could be a cover up for sexual relationships that were illicit; or it could just be flat sexual fantasies sometimes; or, I don’t know, it was also used as an education means in the upbringing of children, you know, walking into dangerous areas at night; or to prevent people from doing illicit things in the night, like meeting other men and wives. It could even be invoked by workers who wanted to stop work during the night, you know at 2am – I guess everybody would propose to stop working already – and they could just invoke this idea about witches: “No, I’m going to go home now, because otherwise witches will come . . . ” etc. So there were many opportunities for the use of witchcraft discourse. And this was not really related to one’s belief or disbelief in the proposition, and they were not also used intentionally in order to manipulate other people’s opinion, but acted more like a spontaneous act, based on the habitus, really. Of course, it could be used to manipulate public opinion [as well], especially if they gossip with others. Like, I was told that this witchcraft accusation often occurred when a son of a wealthy family wanted to marry a woman from a poor family. In this case the mother of that woman was often proclaimed to be a witch, you know, who made some witchcraft in order for the son of the wealthy family to fall in love with this poor girl. Bribery is another case, of course, and an accusation of witchcraft could also redefine the social position, lower the social prestige of a certain person.
HL: Yes. So there are very various ways that you can use it.
HL: Did you, when you were conducting this work – I understood that people talked about these experiences – but did you ever speak with a witch? Or anyone who would admit using witchcraft? Or who knew, at least, that they were [accused] of witchcraft?
MM: (35:00) Well, nobody would ever admit that they used witchcraft. There is no such thing, you know. If they admitted that they used witchcraft this would immediately ruin their social position, probably forever, right?
MM: Of course, I could sometimes realise that some people did indeed practice some sort of magic practices. Like – one thing that I mentioned before was burying objects, usually eggs or bones on a neighbour’s property. And, while they would never admit that they buried a certain object on their neighbour’s property, they did sometimes admit that they buried it as a response for the buried object they found in their property. They assumed that it came from a certain neighbour, with whom they were probably in some conflict or tense relationships, and they just threw it back to their property, or buried it back on their property. So, obviously, something was going on. But I only received several admissions of this kind and never as being the first perpetrator, but always as a response to the act that was done before. Anyway, I did also hear about several people, several women, that had a reputation for being a witch in the community, and I did interview them. And I tried to make them tell me that they were aware of their reputation. But I was never successful. Nobody actually ever admitted that they knew about their reputation, and I’m not really sure if they knew or not. I often got an impression that they didn’t. But I do not dare declaim, because it’s a difficult thing, I guess, to admit that people treat you as the witch, right? Well I heard, also, about some circumstances in which people overtly told some women in the community that they were a witch – like, especially when they were drunk, you know, they would just tell them to their face, “You’re a witch!” or something. Otherwise, generally, they would try to avoid blaming directly because, if it was a village witch they feared that she would take revenge and do some witchcraft, and if it was a neighbourhood witch they always said, “Well, you never know, you can never be sure, you can suspect this or that neighbour, but you can never be sure, because you never actually saw them doing some bewitching.” So, they never really dared to blame them overtly.
HL: It also brings to mind, perhaps – especially with this neighbourhood witch case – if you would blame directly, wouldn’t that maybe take away from the functioning of the accusation dynamic? Because if you blame directly, perhaps, then it can be disputed more easily, or refuted, that this is not the case.
MM: Oh yes. You’re right.
HL: It could change the dynamics of how the accusations work.
MM: Yes. It could, yes. In one way it could. But also you know, you’d be in the position of the accuser. And yes, if you did not get the public support in this case, right, you could end up – perhaps not as a witch – but you could end up with your social position, again, being lowered because you did something that you were not supposed to do. And if you did not have any proofs of their bewitching activities then, how could you do it?
HL: And the evidence would be difficult to produce, so that would be a high risk thing to do.
HL: Exactly. So, I understand that there are no unwitchers in the region anymore. So, it was simply in the stories . . . about . . . ?
MM: Well, you see, there was a very famous unwitching family that provided services for people in this region. And this family – well the starter of the family’s business was a certain woman who was born at the beginning of the 19th -century. (40:00) And then the profession was continued by her son. And after her son died, during World War II, it was continued by his widow. And that last in line, of these famous fortune-tellers, actually died at the beginning of the ’80s. I was lucky to find her grandson, who actually lived with her when he was a child, and observed her working. But anyway, he told me that already in the ’70s she started losing her clients. That her job . . . . She had no job any more at the end of the ’70s, and at the beginning of the ’80s she died. So, basically, there are no traditional unwitchers in the region any more. I know that there was another unwitcher who was practising, offering similar services to the clients, living quite nearby. But, obviously, she did not use the same discourse. She did not continue to work on counteracting witches – instead she used the term enemy, which is much more generalised idea. So, I guess, she was able to continue with this work and she focussed much more on fortune-telling in general, not unwitching procedure as such. But of course, nowadays, people can just turn to New Age therapists, which are often, especially, in bigger cities and communities. And they actually do this nowadays. They actually go to New Age therapists. I’m not sure about people from my region: I did not ask them about that. But I, actually, recently conducted an interview with a woman – an educated woman, an intelligent woman – living quite close to this region, who actually experienced the same type of bewitchment, obviously, as was generally proclaimed to be the main sort of bewitchment in our region. That was – she kept finding eggs buried in her property. And she, indeed, turned to a New Age therapist. This was a Taoist therapist, or dealing with Taoist chrystal therapy and, you know, she helped her clients with some angels’ blessing, did angel therapy etc. So it was not a traditional unwitcher but a New Age therapist, who, in a way, took over the work of traditional unwitchers.
HL: So, was the procedure the same, or. . . ?
MM: In fact it was very similar, in many regards. But there were also differences in her discourse, in relation to the unwitcher’s discourse. Well, first she would admit, just like traditional unwitchers, that – not admit but confirm – that something “was done”, which was a typical discursive expression, in the region, that related to bewitchment, really: that somebody bewitched you, in a way. Although, she definitely denied the involvement of witchcraft. So she said, “There is no such thing as witchcraft.” Anyway, she confirmed that this was done by a certain person who wishes bad to the woman that I had an interview with, and she also tried to annihilate the bewitchment – now it should be “bewitchment” in inverted commas, right?- she gave her some angels’ blessings, in order to annihilate the harm that was being done. But the basic difference is that of trying to help the client identify their witch, which was a really crucial thing in the traditional therapy, the traditional unwitchers procedure: she actually redirected the blame from the outside to one’s own body and mind, within. So, actually, she said, “We should not condemn anyone, you know? It doesn’t matter. There are people . . . ” she vaguely admitted there are people who wish us bad, or who are envious etc, but basically she redirected the blame to ourselves. (45:00) So it is us who have to – actually, it is that woman I mentioned, but I can say generally “us” – we have to purify ourselves, we have to meditate, we have to strengthen our energy etc, and when we do that, no one can blame us any more. So there is just a basic difference, I think that, you know, from finding and searching for the perpetrator on the outside, and finding the “witch” inside within us. That’s the change in this New Age discourse. And, of course, I think it’s got a lot to do with the changes also that happened in Western neoliberal society, where we are actually encouraged to think of our own lives, our own wellbeing, as something that is entirely under our own control, right? It’s ourselves who are responsible for this. And it’s entirely in our hands. We have to look at our own lives as an artistic product or an enterprise, right? We cannot absolutely obtain relief anymore by blaming someone on the outside for our failures.We have become trained to search for the one who is to blame for any misfortune that befell us, in ourselves.
HL: Yes. That’s . . . . So that would be this kind-of: on the one hand it continues, but it changes shape?
MM: It adopts to the demands of this neoliberal capitalistic society that we live in nowadays, right?
MM: But basically its the same thing. You can call it witchcraft, or you cannot call it witchcraft, basically. It’s just the transformation, it’s adaptation. But basically, its a continuation.
HL: Thank you. This has been very interesting.
MM: Thank you. You’re welcome.
HL: Thank you for joining us today.
MM: Thank you.
Citation Info: Mencej, Mirjam 2017. “Witchcraft in Rural Slovenia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 15 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 11 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/witchcraft-in-rural-slovenia/
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