Unwitchers and Witchcraft Discourse as Social Control: In Response to Mirjam Mencej

In a recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, Mirjam Mencej, PhD, Professor of Folklore Studies and Comparative Mythology at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Ljubljana speaks about her ethnographic research and findings which are presented in her 2017 publication

By Patricia ‘Iolana

Patricia ‘Iolana holds a PhD in Literature, Theology and the Arts from the University of Glasgow where she examined the significance of Jungian and post-Jungian theory to the development of the Western Goddess Movement. An ordained Pagan Minister and Interfaith advocate, she is fascinated with personal experiences and approaches them from a psychodynamic perspective called Depth Thealogy—which combines Goddess Thealogy with post-Jungian analytical psychology. Her publications include: Psychedelic Mysteries of the Feminine (2019) Spaces of Spirituality (2018) and Celebrating Seasons of the Goddess (2017); Goddess 2.0: A New Path Forward and She Rises! Volume 2 (2016);  Goddess Thealogy: An International Journal for the Study of the Divine Feminine 1(1) (2011); and Literature of the Sacred Feminine: Great Mother Archetypes and the Re-emergence of the Goddess in Western Traditions (2009). She can be found on the internet through Academia.edu and blog talk radio: Jung and Goddess.

Patricia ‘Iolana

Patricia ‘Iolana holds a PhD in Literature, Theology and the Arts from the University of Glasgow where she examined the significance of Jungian and post-Jungian theory to the development of the Western Goddess Movement. An ordained Pagan Minister and Interfaith advocate, she is fascinated with personal experiences and approaches them from a psychodynamic perspective called Depth Thealogy—which combines Goddess Thealogy with post-Jungian analytical psychology. Her publications include: Psychedelic Mysteries of the Feminine (2019) Spaces of Spirituality (2018) and Celebrating Seasons of the Goddess (2017); Goddess 2.0: A New Path Forward and She Rises! Volume 2 (2016);  Goddess Thealogy: An International Journal for the Study of the Divine Feminine 1(1) (2011); and Literature of the Sacred Feminine: Great Mother Archetypes and the Re-emergence of the Goddess in Western Traditions (2009). She can be found on the internet through Academia.edu and blog talk radio: Jung and Goddess.

In response to:

Witchcraft in Rural Slovenia

Based on her ethnographic fieldwork in the area, Mencej describes witchcraft from a variety of angles, from psychological to anthropological and historical, providing a detailed understanding of witchcraft as part of the lived social reality of the community. In what kind of situations are witchcraft narratives evoked?

In a recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, Mirjam Mencej, PhD, Professor of Folklore Studies and Comparative Mythology at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Ljubljana speaks about her ethnographic research and findings which are presented in her 2017 publication Styrian Witches in European Perspective: Ethnographic Fieldwork.

Dr Mencej’s research provides a unique perspective into cultural and social Witchcraft in the rural and isolated communities of Slovenia. She prefaces her discussion by stating a) that contemporary Witchcraft appears in many guises, b) how Witchcraft has become a commodity in modern times, and c) how, for many in the West, Witchcraft is now the trademark of radical feminists. Thankfully, Dr Mencej goes on to state how the above has nothing to do with actual Witchcraft.

Conducting ethnographic field research in isolated communities in Slovenia provides Dr Mencej and her investigators an exceptionally rich opportunity to examine the historical, anthropological, social, and cultural impact of both Witchcraft and Witchcraft discourse in a region where the commodification of Witchcraft has not taken root. Her field research allows scholars, researchers, and practitioners an alternative understanding to various forms of Witchcraft and exemplifies the power of Witchcraft discourse as a form of societal control.

The one response that Dr Mencej’s field research obtained that is truly linked to other societal assumptions of Witchcraft is that Witchcraft served as an explanation of a perceived ‘misfortune’.  This perceived ‘misfortune’ caused by Witchcraft could be personal or practical such as a physical or mental illness in the family, failed crops, a broken fence, a lame animal, etc. In these rural communities, the origins of misfortune are social—envy often being cited as the main reason for accusations of Witchcraft against neighbours within the affected community.

The field research in Slovenia demonstrates how the community formed a consensus about Witchcraft and how Witchcraft discourse was used as a tool for social conformity and control. It is commonly understood that most of the individuals accused of Witchcraft over the centuries have been predominantly women. Argumentative, intelligent, inquisitive women were often accused as Witches by their fellow community members. Widows and unmarried women were a threat to the community as their social status was unclear in a rigid patriarchal society. Without a husband to protect them from social accusations, these women had no system to defend against these often-unsubstantiated allegations. This demonstrates how Witchcraft discourse was used as a powerful tool for the control of ‘rogue’ women with dubious social positions in the community. The folklore narratives these communities embraced and perpetuated served as a behavioural control mechanism. No one wanted to be accused of practicing Witchcraft, and, therefore, women who were labelled as ‘suspect’ would alter their behaviour to escape suspicion or accusation. The difficulty remains that a source for the perceived ‘misfortune’ must be found and eradicated. Believing an outside source as the responsible catalyst for one’s misfortune, the Neighbourhood Witch or Village Witch was often identified as the scapegoat.

The exceptional findings in the field research conducted by Dr Mencej is the role of the ‘Unwitchers’ or ‘Counter-Witches’ who functioned within these remote communities. As mentioned previously, Witchcraft, or individual Witches, were often blamed for causing another’s misfortunes. Threatened with losing what little social standing these women often held in their communities, the Unwtichers were fortune tellers who could counteract the perceived ‘misfortune’ or identify the responsible Witch. Unwitchers often granted the accusing member of the community the opportunity to come face-to-face with the agent of their misfortune. And while one might conclude that the Unwitchers were the natural enemies of local Witches, this is not the case. In fact, according to Dr Mencej, Unwitchers often assisted women in these times of economic insecurity by helping them maintain their social position (status) within their own community. The Unwitchers could accomplish this by helping to transfer the blame to another (often towards an outsider).

However, Unwitchers no longer exist in the region explored by Dr Mencej’s field research. Only the stories remain. The last known member of a famous Unwitcher family of fortune tellers passed away in the 1980’s effectively ending the Unwitcher’s role in the rural Slovenian communities.

Their position has been taken over by what Dr Mencej calls ‘New Age therapists’.  In true psychological fashion, the New Age therapists redirects the blame for the perceived ‘misfortune’ from an outside force (e.g the local Village or Community Witch) to inner psychic forces—it is the ‘inner witch’ that is now to blame as the therapists help community members understand that individuals are responsible for their own misfortunes.

While the Witchcraft discourse continues in rural Slovenia, the understanding of perceived ‘misfortune’ and the ancient accusation of Witchcraft is being radically altered with the perception of the individual as responsible.  This is a major shift in the Witchcraft discourse, and Dr Mencej’s field research is a valuable resource in understanding Witchcraft as a powerful tool for both social control and change.

 

 Fund the RSP while you shop! Use an Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com affiliate link whenever you make a purchase. There’s no additional cost to you, but every bit helps us stay on the air! 

We need your support!

Want to support us directly? Become a monthly Patron or consider giving us a one-time donation through PayPal

Other EPISODES YOU MIGHT ENJOY

Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life – An interview with Tatjana Schnell

Podcast

Recently, scholars have placed the concept of ‘meaning making’ as an important area of focus within psychology of religion. Some people find meaning in religious or spiritual experience and beliefs while others find meaning on more secular mediums in life. However, if humans are truly on a “search for meaning”, as Frankl has argued, what might be some of the sources of such meaning?
God’s Mind, Your Mind, and Theory of Mind

Podcast

What do God's mind and your mind have in common? A core tenet of cognitive science of religion (CSR) is that the folk-psychological ability to explain human behavior in terms of beliefs, desires and intentions – known as theory of mind (ToM) – is also a system that makes us receptive to belief in the supernatural.
Roots as Scripture and Scripture as Roots

Podcast

Since its release in 1976, Alex Haley's "Roots" has been a source of inspiration for generations of Americans. For Assistant Professor Richard Newton, Haley's novel reveals the way that scriptures play critical roles in rooting, uprooting, and routing our lives. Listen now to this fascinating discussion with Dr. Newton about his new book "Identifying Roots: Alex Haley and the Anthropology of Scriptures" with RSP Co-Host Breann Fallon.
Comparing Methods in Christian Origins

Podcast

What happens when scholars take seriously the human-focused study of religious practices? In this episode, Willi Braun joins Andie Alexander to discuss the importance of critical approaches in the study of religion.
The Insider/Outsider Problem

Podcast

The Insider/Outsider problem, relating to where scholars position themselves relating to the subject matter (whatever that may be), is one of the most perennial problems in the academic study of religion. Does one have to be a member of a community for your testimony about that community to be valid? Or does your membership of the community invalidate your objectivity?
Religion, gender and corporeality

Podcast

How can religious studies be informed by theories around gender and corporeality? How is gender expressed in today's women's spirituality and in religions that consider femininity to be a way to access power around sexuality and procreation? When it comes to the study of gender and religion, ...

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The views expressed in podcasts, features and responses are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Religious Studies Project or our sponsors. The Religious Studies Project is produced by the Religious Studies Project Association (SCIO), a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (charity number SC047750).