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Explaining Witchcraft: Response to ‘Witchcraft in Slovenia’

In her interview, Mirjam Mencej discusses her fascinating research into witchcraft in rural Slovenia. She conducted field work in Eastern Slovenia into people’s beliefs on witchcraft. Though restricted to rural areas in Eastern Slovenia, she claims belief in witchcraft is very much alive. She distinguishes traditional witchcraft sharply from modern neo-pagan witchcraft like you find in Wicca. In traditional witchcraft a witch is above all a person (usually a woman) who does harm by using supernatural forces.

According to Mencej, people believe that all witches to share malevolent agency. Nonetheless, various types of witches can be distinguished. A first type is the ‘neighborhood witch’. Neighborhood witches are believed to cause misfortune to their neighbors. They are often invoked to explain diseases or other misfortunes. A second kind is the ‘village witch’. These are witches who are recognized by certain physical characteristics like ugliness or limping. Someone can also be classified as village witch because of her reputation. Reputation can be inherited from one’s parents or result from having certain character traits. A third type is the ‘night witch’. These witches are believed to appear in the form of flickering lights and make people lose their orientation at night. Unlike neighborhood witches, they do not cause economic damage but are also responsible for misfortunes, namely leading people astray. People discuss different types of witches under different discourses yet they are often talked about as similar.

Mencej also discusses a fourth group, the ‘unwitchers’. These are not witches themselves but provide services to counteract witchcraft. They nihilate the witches’ malevolent forces by giving instructions. They also aid in the identification of witches. According to Mencej, they are no unwitchers anymore. They lost much of their clientele in the late 1970’s and have since died of old age.

Mencej suggestsbelief in witchcraft has a mainly explanatory function. For example, witchcraft can serve as an explanation for why misfortune befalls people or why they get lost at night. Belief in witchcraft is also a valuable source of justification. Mencej gives the example of a young man who was unable to get a job. Rather than attributing this to emotional malefunction, his unemployment was attributed to witchcraft. This allowed the young man to avoid the social stigma that often comes with being diagnosed with emotional dysfunction. For his parents an explanation in terms of witchcraft avoided blame for bad parenting. Witchcraft is also useful as an explanation for why workers refuse to work late at night or to instruct children to be careful.

At first glance Mencej’s explanatory account fits well with what she says about the evolution of witchcraft belief since the 1970’s. We already noted that unwitchers did not attract clientele anymore and disappeared. Mencej notes that since that 1970’s public discourse about witchcraft became more difficult (although private discourse survived). She connects this to societal evolution in Slovenia. Since the 1970’s, people in Slovenia got easier access to water, electricity, television and the like. Since then, belief in witchcraft appears to have lost much of its force. Although she does not make it explicit, Mencej suggests that societal evolution eroded the explanatory function of witchcraft. Witchcraft had to compete with new or alternative explanations. With technological advance came information about how misfortunes arise through natural means. This likely eroded belief in witchcraft.

Near the end of the interview, Mencej makes another suggestion that challenges her story of societal evolution. Rather than diminishing as a result of societal evolution, witchcraft may instead have simply changed She notes that although unwitchers have disappeared, people sometimes resort to new-age therapies to undo harm by witchcraft. In new-age therapies, the source of harm is often not located in an external witch but in the bewitched person herself. New-age therapists urge people to look for ‘the witch within themselves’ rather than undoing harm done by external witches. This suggests that witchcraft does not disappear because of societal change but evolves with it. Mencej attributes the change to a shift in focus from communal identity toward individual responsibility , which characterizes many contemporary neo-liberal societies.

Mencej’s explanatory account is certainly a useful paradigm for studying traditional witchcraft. Some points she touches on, however, suggest there is more going on at a deeper level, namely that of the human mind. In his landmark book ‘Religion Explained’[i] Pascal Boyer argued that explanatory accounts of religion put the cart before the horse. Often belief in God or gods is seen as an explanation for natural phenomena, for example for earthquakes or smaller misfortunes. Boyer argues that this account evades the question why gods are considered good explanations for these phenomena. To answer this question we need to look deeper, namely at the human cognitive apparatus. A closer look could reveal why people tend to refer to gods as explanations for natural phenomena.

Boyer’s insight can be applied to traditional witchcraft belief. The question can be asked why malevolent activity by witches is considered a good explanation for misfortune. Mencej’s suggestion near the end that witchcraft belief does not disappear but evolves also suggests that witchcraft belief goes deeper than its explanatory function. When people are confronted with rival explanations in contemporary times, their witchcraft beliefs do not seem to disappear but their beliefs are adapted. This strongly suggests that there is more to witchcraft belief than its apparent explanatory function.

Boyer made suggestions why belief in gods comes easily.[ii] To my knowledge, no suggestions have been made why belief in witchcraft comes easily. Underlying the belief might be a belief in continuity between human will and nature; that is a belief that humans can influence the natural world with their will. Famous experiments like the Heider-Simmel experiment suggest that humans tend to see artifacts as minded.[iii] There is also evidence that humans are inclined to see nature as a living organism.[iv] This does not get us to the continuity belief yet. For this more research is definitely needed.

Probing a deeper, cognitive level of witchcraft belief probably fell beyond Mencej’s scope of research. Given the recent explosion in cognitive theories of religious belief the lack of interest in witchcraft belief is remarkable. I suggested that some of the paradigms in the cognitive study of religion could be applied to the study of witchcraft. These will be additions to Mencej’s research rather than challenges.

References

[i] Boyer, Pascal. Religion explained: The evolutionary origins of religious thought. No. 170. Basic books, 2001.

[ii] He argued that one reason why belief in gods comes easily is because they violate some ontological expectations and hence are more memorable.

[iii] Heider, Fritz, and Marianne Simmel. “An experimental study of apparent behavior.” The American Journal of Psychology 57.2 (1944): 243-259.

Heide rand Simmel showed a short video of two triangles moving around to subjects and asked the mto describe what they sawy afterwards. Many described the video by referring to the triangles as minded. For example, they said that the one triangle was trying to get the attention of the other or that they were in love.

[iv] Kelemen, Deborah, and Evelyn Rosset. “The human function compunction: Teleological explanation in adults.” Cognition 111.1 (2009): 138-143.

 

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 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.

 

Witchcraft in Rural Slovenia

In this podcast, professor Mirjam Mencej talks about contemporary witchcraft in Styria region in rural Eastern 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? What makes them effective? Who could gain the reputation of being a witch and why? Mencej also describes the role of the ‘unwitcher’, a person who had the power to counter bewitchment and detect the witch responsible.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


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.

MM: Definitely.

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?

HL: Yes.

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.

MM: Yes

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?

HL: Yes.

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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Pagan Scholarship from a Pagan Perspective

Ethan Doyle White, a PhD student in Anthropology of Religion at University College London, recently discussed his research into his 2015 book Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft. In this interview with the RSP, Doyle White states that he wrote this text ‘[…]to summarise the state of all previous research on Wicca […]’ and to fill an obvious gap in academic scholarship. While I applaud his attempt to write an initial definitive text, and certainly agree with him that there is a crucial lack of scholarship on Wicca and contemporary forms of Paganism, Doyle White posits a number of understandings that, as both a Pagan scholar and Pagan Minister, I must open for further discussion and interpretation.

In his opening response, Doyle White cites that ‘Wicca is the largest religion within contemporary Paganism’ citing unnamed ‘sociological, anthropological and ethnographic’ evidence. Doyle White’s statement reveals two distinct problematic issues. Firstly, Doyle White appears to be confusing the difference between Witchcraft and Wicca often presenting them as one in the same when they are quite different traditions.  Although Doyle White is correct in his historical connection between Jules Michelet, Margaret Murray, and Gerald Gardner in the foundation of Wicca in the early twentieth century, he appears to have missed a vital point. Gardner was the first to write down a dogma for the Wiccan tradition—a literal guide for adherents as to structure, form, ritual, and beliefs. A majority of contemporary Wiccans are Gardnerian Wiccans and follow (and in some cases modify) the templates Gardner constructed. High Priestess Phyllis Curott is a prominent contemporary Wiccan who has worked with the UN, the Parliament of World Religions, and Harvard’s Religious Pluralism Project. However, there are a number of contemporary Witchcraft traditions that pre-date Gardner such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn  (founded in 1888) and the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (who trace their historical roots to 1500 BCE). There are contemporary covens (or loosely-organised groups) of Witches both in the US and in the UK that do not self-identify as Wiccan; these Witches (both male and female) perform rituals and spellcasting either in solitary practice or within a coven or loosely-organised group. None of these traditions should be confused with or categorised with Wicca; they are various forms of Witchcraft.

Another complication with Doyle White’s statement that ‘Wicca is the largest religion within contemporary Paganism’ lies in the classification ‘Wicca’ and the opportunity to use it as a self-identifying label within available contemporary sociological data. Religious identifications that are alternative to the major world religions are relatively new to census questionnaires. However, there is a stark difference between the available options on religious identity in the 2012 US Census than there are in the 2011 UK Census. The US lists only four options: Wiccan, Pagan, Spiritualists, and Other; whereas the UK includes religious affiliations such as Wicca, Druid, Spiritualist, Heathen, Satanism, Witchcraft, New Age, Shamanism, Pagan, Pantheism, and the highly-popular Jedi Knight. What this implies is that the data from the US is skewed if adherents from a wide variety of traditions have only four limiting options to choose from; a practicing Witch can tick either ‘Wicca’ or ‘Pagan’ as a self-identifying religious affiliation. Whereas, in the United Kingdom much more data is available as to specific religious affiliation including a variety of new religious movements. Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States (2003) by Helen Berger, Evan Leach, and Leigh Shaffer, included six ‘Neo-Pagan’ movements, three of which predominated the survey: Wiccans, Pagans, and Goddess-worshippers, but also included Druids, Shamans, and the eclectic Unitarian Universalist Pagans. Ultimately, the US Census forces practitioners to choose between self-identifying as either Wiccan or Pagan obfuscating the data’s accuracy through the limitation of choices. In essence, the Wiccan community is, perhaps, much smaller than Doyle White asserts.

While accurately discussing the range of theological principles found in Wicca (from ditheism and polytheism to feminist monotheism), Doyle White includes atheists and agnostics into this theological array stating that this category includes those working with Jungian archetypes. My own doctoral research into the significance of Jung and post-Jungian theory to the development of the Western Goddess Movement contradicts Doyle White’s assessment. In fact, while the Jungian Goddess archetype can be traced back in the US to the 1920s and M Esther Harding (a devout student of Jung’s), evidence indicates that post-Jungian Jean Shinoda Bolen created a bridge from theory to religious praxis back in 1994 with her rebirth memoir Crossing to Avalon. Jung’s influence on Western faith traditions from the Catholic Charismatic movement to the development and advancement of Bolen’s post-Jungian Goddess Feminism, as a faith tradition which openly espouses a monotheaistic paradigm, stands in direct contradiction to Doyle White’s assertion that all post-Jungians are atheists or agnostics. While some post-Jungians remain purely analytical, a vast majority of contemporary post-Jungian Goddess adherents have crossed the bridge from analytics to praxis and consider themselves perhaps more ‘spiritual’ than ‘religious’.

When speaking of spellcasting, Doyle White states it is often used ‘in a negative sense’ preserving fictional caricatures of Witches dichotomously as evil or good. The perpetuation of these divergent and inaccurate stereotypes can only further hinder critical scholarship in this field. Phyllis Curott attempted to educate and change ‘the world’s prejudice’ in her 1998 memoir, Book of Shadows.

In closing, Doyle White calls for new terminology, preferring the Academic Study of Paganism, and I agree. Pagan Studies is problematic as a label and is often exclusionary, but I disagree with Doyle White when he states that we must stop accepting Pagan definitions from Pagans. Admittedly, definitions from lay adherents are often idealised and problematic, however, some of Doyle White’s statements exemplify the crucial need for viable Pagan scholarship from within the community that is analytically useful to scholars. Advancement of this scholarly pursuit requires the implementation of Academic Study of Paganism departments in which a multidisciplinary approach is beneficial, but must also include practicing Pagans. Ultimately Doyle White makes a good contribution to Pagan scholarship, but he exemplifies the need for Pagan academics and critical Pagan analysis.

References

Berger HA, Leach EA and Shaffer LS (2003) Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo Pagans in the United States. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Bolen, JS (1994) Crossing to Avalon: A Woman’s Midlife Pilgrimage. New York: Harper Collins.

Curott P (1998) Book of Shadows: A Modern Woman’s Journey into the Wisdom of Witchcraft and the Magic of the Goddess. New York: Broadway Books.

Harding ME (1971) Woman’s Mysteries: Ancient and Modern. Introduction by CG Jung. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

‘Iolana P (2016) Jung and Goddess: The Significance of Jungian and post-Jungian Theory to the Development of the Western Goddess Movement. An unpublished Thesis. University of Glasgow.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2004) ‘Focus on Religion’ Available at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/ethnicity/focus-on-religion/index.html

_____. (2012) Religion in England and Wales 2011. Available at:  http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/census/2011-census/key-statistics-for-local-authorities-in-england-and-wales/rpt-religion.html

U.S Census Bureau (2012) Statistical Abstract of the United States, Table 75.  Self-Described Religious Identification of Adult Population: 1990, 2001, and 2008. Available at:  http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0075.pdf

Doyle White E (2012) In Defence of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen’s Critique. In: The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol 14, No 1 (5-21).

A Critical Introduction to the History, Beliefs, and Practices of Wiccans

In this interview Ethan Doyle White, author of the book Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, introduces his systematic overview of the contested history and multifaceted developments of Wicca. White presents his own methodological approaches and theoretical data utilising both emic and etic sources in a thematic framework. Based on the sheer number of people identifying as Wiccans, book sales, the media, and the popularity of the term, White argues that Wicca is truly the most popular and widespread expression of modern Paganism. He then discusses the ‘invented’ claims of Wicca being a continuity of European pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices, the relationship between religion and magic in Wiccan discourse in reference to theological elements and ritual practices that define Wicca, and then a cross-comparison of Wiccans and self-proclaimed practitioners of ‘Traditional Witchcraft’. White also discusses the divide in Wicca over more traditionally inclined practitioners and more modern eclectic practitioners. Regarding the socio-political dimensions of Wicca, White examines ways in which Wiccan discourse can be conceived as a political activist movement regarding gender rights, environmental issues, and socio-economic policies. On a final note, White dissects the current academic debate on the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of scholars who are Wiccans studying other practitioners of Wicca, and concludes by presenting his own view on what the future holds for Wicca.

Listeners might also be interested in our podcasts on 21st Century Irish Paganism, Druidry and the Definition of Religion, and Animism, amongst others. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, smudging sticks, besomes, and more.

Futures Found Wanting

In her recent book on confession and witchcraft in early modern France, French Studies scholar Virginia Krause argues that early modern demonology was a ‘science of the night’. The activities of the Devil, and of the witches who served him, occurred in the darkest hours, ‘when the shadows hide his shadow’ (2015, 49). Their influence was felt, but their crimes were hidden. For the period’s witch-hunting demonologists, ‘trying to understand witchcraft was like peering into the darkness of an impenetrable night’ (ibid. 55). To compensate for this visual obfuscation, several strategies were developed for gathering evidence of the witch’s occult acts. The ‘auricular regime’ of confession itself was the most prominent, creating a new epistemic framework within which testimony became seen as the guarantor of truth. Through this and other methods old and new, the demonologist came to believe he could at least perceive—if not necessarily pierce—the darkness that veiled demonological truths.

Krause’s work is distant in historical and geographical focus from David Robertson’s own, which explores the discursive function of the UFO in modern millennial conspiracist cultures. Both, however, share an attentiveness to the construction of socioreligious threats, and the epistemic strategies by which these constructions are realised. Figured as discursive objects, both the witch and the UFO exceeded (or were thought to exceed) the epistemic capacities of contemporary knowledge, necessitating the creation of new forms of knowing. Robertson explores such new forms both in terms of their epistemic strategies and their discursive function. Regarding the former, he analyses the role of epistemic capital (in millennial conspiracisms and as a concept more broadly) in creating counter-epistemic economies that seek to encapsulate and exceed normative epistemic frameworks, suturing traditional and scientific knowledge to alternative knowledges: experience, channelling, and the painstaking synthesis of data and connection. Regarding the latter, he identifies discourses of ‘prevention’ as a strategy of alleviating cognitive dissonance when prophecies fail. In these discourses, prophetic failures are coded not as the fault of the prophet or believers, but as the result of malevolent agencies blocking the advent of utopia. In doing so, it relocates blame from the self, and the community aligned with that self, and places it onto an Other, for which epistemic capital provides the means of discernment and delineation.

Such delineated qualities often mimic those of traditional, theological demons. Indeed, the idea that contemporary conspiracism’s malevolent forces might replicate features of Christian demonology is not itself a novel point. Robertson himself notes this, as have Michael Barkun (2013) and Christopher Partridge (2005). Millennial conspiracism thus comes to share much with more traditional Christian theodicies. Evil becomes its problem to solve. But while those theodicies might appeal to the unknowability of divine will or the demonically-induced fallenness of creation to explain the persistence of worldly evil, conspiracism (also) situates it in the machinations of shadowy networks of agents, more and less supernatural. It is here, more than anywhere else, that conspiracism truly meets demonology. It is simply not enough to name the source of evil or even to understand its nature. It must be located, codified, and catalogued. Its agents must be identified. Whether the means are the confessional regimes of the old scientia daemonis or the experiential, channelled, or synthesised strategies of millennial conspiracism, the conspiracy’s demonological truths—whether literal or metaphoric—must be unveiled.

As a discursive strategy of Othering, Robertson argues conspiracy is specific in that it constructs Others as both active malevolences and as originating from within society itself. The witch, often marginalised by class and gender, might seem an odd comparison here, but the crime of witchcraft was one of treason as much as heresy. Their messages encrypted in demonic languages and their actions concealed in deepest darkness, witches were discursively constructed as walking unseen among the good folk of Christendom, secretly turning society to demoniac ends. The witch was thus a part of Christendom, but its deviant part, the part that needed to be located and excised so that the Body might heal and world order could assume its proper path. For those who have spent time with conspiracist cultures, millennialist or otherwise, this image (albeit perhaps modernised, secularised, or overtly de-Christianised) will be a familiar one. Conspirators—whether human, alien, demonic, or some combination or hybridisation of the three—operate discursively to signal a world potentially being led astray. Their crimes are hidden, but their influence is felt.

Conspiracists, who often construct themselves as heretics and mavericks free of the constraints of socioreligious orthodoxy, would likely abhor any comparison to the witch-hunting demonologists of early modernity. Today’s hoarders of epistemic capital are rarely the rich or powerful. They work (or would like to think they work) at the societal margins, circulating in counter-economies of secrets and disregarded data. By contrast, the early modern demonologists were ultimately agents of regnant order. While they strove (at least theoretically) to maintain a world order constructed as under threat, millennial conspiracists strive to uncover those forces preventing its radical transformation. Both, however, depict a profound anxiety about the trajectory of their society and the desire to rectify it. They share that disorienting sense of crisis, exacerbated by events real and imagined, seen as driving many apocalyptic, millennialist and conspiracist narratives, and the identities of the communities that narrate and are narrated by them (O’Leary 1994). Their anxieties are formulated around perceived failures of historical progression. In millennial conspiracism and early modern demonology alike looms the threat of an unwilled and unwanted tomorrow. When prophecy fails, or the present simply becomes written as ‘the failure of the future’—to use Robyn Weigman’s formulation of apocalypse (2000, 807)—contingency measures become necessary, and the construction of malevolent counter-agencies can become a matter of cognitive and communal survival. Behind both conspiracism and demonology lies the ascription of agency to the shifts in a society, not just in the concatenation of disparate specificities—individuals, movements, organisations, events—but in gestalt. Society as a whole, and the future that society seemed to promise, is seen as failing to reach its fulfilment.

But the processes of societal transformation are often opaque. Thus the means for their detection requires the development of a new ‘science of the night,’ one which could piece the darkness veiling demonological truths. Robertson’s work lays bare many of the methods of this new scientia daemonis. Its means of accruing epistemic capital shares traits with both its historical forebears and its contemporary cousins. Such family resemblances point to another of Robertson’s observations: the lines drawn between ‘new’ religions and their older—more codified, more established, (ergo) more legitimate—kindred. When a Christian activist sits in prayer and the Holy Spirit reveals the demonic forces structuring the US Democratic Party—to use an example Sean McCloud reports on (2015, 32)—the line between traditional revelation and the channelled knowledge of a David Icke or Wilcock becomes at best nebulous. Both are inadmissible in the courts of dominant epistemic strategies, but they nonetheless draw on the same sources of knowledge and strategies of knowing to identify, codify, comprehend, and thereby either conquer or circumvent those worldly and otherworldly forces striving secretly in the service of futures found wanting.

References

  • Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Second Edition (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2013).
  • Virginia Krause, Demonology, Witchcraft, and Confession in Early Modern France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  • Sean McCloud, American Possessions: Battling Demons in the Contemporary United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
  • Stephen D. O’Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  • Christopher Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West, Volume 2: Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture, and Occulture (London and New York: Continuum, 2005).
  • Robyn Weigman, ‘Feminism’s Apocalyptic Futures,’ New Literary History 31:4 (2000), 805–825.

Taking Witchcraft and Possessions Seriously with Philip Almond

In this interview with Philip Almond, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Queensland and Deputy Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses, listeners are treated to a wide-ranging survey of the past decade of Almond’s work on witchcraft and demonic possession in early modern England. Beginning with Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Almond was among those that refocused discussions of this material to de-emphasize narratives and methods that had been located too centrally in the twentieth and not the sixteenth century. Witchcraft and possession were not medical phenomenon in any modern sense. They could not be written off as simple psychological episodes. Nor was it appropriate to bring modern tropes of mental health, rationalism, or religion as a private belief into the discussion of what people in the 16th to 18th centuries experienced.

Perhaps this discourse is largely a boon following Stuart Clark’s seminal Thinking With Demons (Oxford University Press, 1999). This included not just Almond’s Demonic Possession, but also Moshe Sluhovosky’s Believe Not Every Spirit (University of Chicago Press, 2007) and Sarah Ferber’s Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France (Routlege, 2004) among many other fine volumes. As a body of scholarship, these works have increasingly sought to excise the present from its intrusive role in the analysis of the past. Can we discuss our historical subjects without seeing them as moderns who are simply living in the past? If this is familiar, you might be remembering some version of the steady drumbeat of David Lowenthal’s now clichéd dictate that the past is a foreign country.

Among historians (and anthropologists) this over-commitment to context may feel weatherworn, but for those in religious studies today it should be axiomatic. If a physician’s first pledge is to “do no harm,” then the scholar of religion must vow to “take religion seriously.” Almond’s reluctance to reduce witchcraft or possession to mere psychology is not on its face a rejection of reductionism writ large. He suggests early in the interview that he believes the root cause of the rise of possessions is millennialism or apocalypticism. Though we might be inclined to see witchcraft as a religious rebuttal to modernism, Almond appears unconvinced that the phenomenon can be a clear response to our contemporary understanding of this distinctive period of European history. “It’s too big a story,” he says, especially when a more obvious alternative is the specific consequences of the Reformation for individual branches of Christianity. If you’ll forgive the pun, the Devil is most certainly in the details.

What is striking about Almond’s consistent efforts to see the immediate and local contexts for witchcraft is the way it suggests that even our modern debates about the definition of religion are secondary to the challenges of historically-situated scholarship. To those who may have earlier leapt to ask, ‘what is the “religion” that we are taking seriously in the case of Almond’s subjects?’, the response is two-fold.

First, recognize how thoroughly such an inquiry is situated in the present. Such a modern scholarly category imposes an unwarranted discourse on our beleaguered subjects. It cannot possibly matter to long-gone early modern Europeans. Such inquiries benefit only us. If some version of the category advances our understanding of the relevance and significance of our subjects, it does not change the facts of our subjects’ experiences. After all, if we read the cultural guides about our “foreign country,” we haven’t changed the country’s citizens. Indeed, the danger is that in reading such a guide, we will change the citizens to appear to us as our guidebooks say they are. When the past has provided us as many truly excellent documents as early modern Europe has on witchcraft and possessions, what need have we to inject ourselves into their discussions? We have the details we need to compose a full picture of the era, its subjects, and much of the discourse surrounding demonic possession.

Second, Almond explains that it is the disconnects and differences between past and present that fuel his curiosity. Why is the past different? The efforts one must expend to answer such a question are wasted if we rush hurriedly to the present for some payoff about today’s society. While one duty of the scholar is to articulate the value of their work for the community that receives it, the receiving community must do the accompanying work of explaining why the present is different. This is a difference that matters to those of us today. It is also a disjuncture in scholarly products. When we fail to cleanly separate the line between past and present, as some works discussing demonic possession have done, the end result is a work that is likely to say more about how our modern ideas about religion or psychology succeed or fail in being persuasive in telling stories about the past for those in the present. A good story is not necessarily the same thing as excellent scholarship. In the former, readers are entertained and may find new ways to appreciate the differences of the present from the past. Only in the latter, however, are we likely to get a sense of what our subjects thought about witchcraft and possession. And then, if we so choose, we might ask, how central such ideas were to those things we would today describe as religious. I suspect, however, that even this mild extension is largely an exercise in anachronism.

I like to ask myself the following question of historically situated works. Are they tied so tightly to the moment when they were written that in the future they are likelier to be studied as representations of the scholarly moment of their production rather than for what they had to say about their subjects? I would like to think many of us strive to put the history of our subjects forward and not to become mere historiographical bywords for future scholars. I recommend Almond’s recent works as excellent models of being serious about the history of witchcraft and possession so that we might better understand that past on its own terms.

Witchcraft and Demonic Possession in Early Modern England

Although accounts of witchcraft and demonic possession can be found from virtually all cultures around the world, in the wake of the Reformation and the European wars of religion in the fifteenth century, accusations of witchcraft and instances of demonic possession reached fever pitch. This was particularly the case in early modern England.

Philip Almond discusses such phenomena not by providing any “slick” answers which explain them in simple sociological terms, but by looking at the “familiar cultural script” that played out in most instances of possession, and by keeping in mind the broader social context in which accusations of witchcraft were made (including the “strategic interests” of many accusers).

This interview is a distillation of Professor Almond’s recent publications on religious history in early modern England, and also includes discussion of his newly released work: The Devil: A New Biography.

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The Work of Carlo Ginzburg as the Researcher and the Reimagined Researched

During the EASR/IAHR/NGG 2014 Conference on Religion and Pluralities of Knowledge at the University of Groningen, I had the privilege of attending Carlo Ginzburg’s presentation, followed by his interview with the Religious Studies Project. I was impressed by his erudite observations, passion for sharing new ideas and research with both academic and non-academic audiences, and his friendly attitude towards the younger generations of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Throughout the interview Ginzburg shared his critical stance towards postmodern rhetoric regarding historical narratives, displaying an anti-Nietzschean approach to establishing sources and evidence in the analysis of historical data. Furthermore, I was impressed by his bold characterisation of ‘identity’ as “a dreadful word,” especially in relation to cultural and ethnic boundaries.

Having studied some of his major works, both initially as a non-specialist and now as a member of the academic community, I have always admired how Ginzburg allows his archival ethnographic experience to affect his research without succumbing to the excessive indulgence of fruitless self-reflexivity. A further area of his research that inspired me to pursue various ethnographic and hermeneutic paths has been his tendency to provide suppressed minorities with a voice addressing the complexities of the relationship between mythopoesis and microhistory.

Traditionally, historical studies of ‘witchcraft’ have tended to stress the function of the ‘witches’ and their beliefs, neglecting at times broader meanings of such socio-religious phenomena from the perspective of either the accused or the self-designated. During the 1960s, though, a young Carlo Ginzburg discovered in the Archepiscopal Archives of Udine, a town in the Italian province of Friuli, a series of documents relaying the existence of an alleged agrarian fertility cult active during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These findings have been translated and published in his books Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, detailing the events surrounding the trials of the members of this ‘cult’ referred to as the benandanti. These benandanti, through their testimonies of nocturnal flights, metamorphoses into animals, secret gatherings, and night battles against destructive witches and warlocks to protect the fertility of the crops and their communities, fitted easily into the stereotype of witches and their sabbaths, especially as portrayed by the Roman Inquisition during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Inspired by Vladimir Propp’s methodology as outlined in his Morphology of the Folktale, Ginzburg would later come to discover possible connections of polythetic classification[1] regarding the beliefs and practices of the benandanti, echoing the diffusion of an earlier agrarian cult across Europe. Evidence for his thesis was presented through his discovery of cases such as the Livonian werewolf, the Corsican mazzeri, the Peloponnesian kallikantzaroi, and others displaying similarities with spatially distant myths and rites of Siberian shamans.”[2] These similarities can be outlined as:

i. Physical markings at birth indicating occult methods of communication.

ii. Entry into states of trance.

iii. Departure of the spirit from the body in either a human or animal form.

iv. Battles against destructive witches to protect the harvest and the community.

v. Such experiences occurring at special times of the year.[3]

However, the defining aspect of Ginzburg’s historiographical work in my opinion is delineated in Storia notturna: una decifrazione del sabba where he writes:

 We have distinguished two cultural currents, of diverse origin: on the one hand, the theme, elaborated by inquisitors and lay judges, of a conspiracy hatched by a sect or a group hostile to society; on the other, elements of shamanistic origin, now rooted in folk culture, such as magical flight and metamorphoses into animals.[4]

Despite Ginzburg’s academic legacy, some of his historical hypotheses have attracted mixed reviews.[5] In rapport with some criticisms, I still remain in favour of some of his conclusive remarks, and especially his noble endeavours to overcome the ideological antithesis between seemingly rational and irrational categories. In addition, some of his claims regarding the human body, construed through historico-cultural paradigms, yet stemming from the universal nature of our biological make-up as a species, I personally find attractive for further interdisciplinary debate. However, what I will be addressing in this response, which I believe has become an area of concern for both ethnographers and subjects, are the effects that the ‘researcher’ might have in organising and constructing the identity of the ‘researched’ in emic self-representations.

Throughout my ethnographic explorations I have come across various practitioners of what may be referred to as ‘modern Western magic’ self-identifying as ‘Traditional Witchcraft’, ‘Sabbatic Craft Tradition’, and so on.[6] Upon further investigation, I came to realise that despite emic claims of inspiration and insight deriving from direct ritual experience, some of these individuals and groups clearly drew upon the works of Ginzburg and other similar scholars in establishing a sense of structure and identity. Although I am not undermining their self-representations generated through extensive research and disciplined practice, I find it fascinating how we researchers at times tend to neglect how we may be responsible for reimagining and perpetuating synchronic adaptations of historico-religious phenomena, such as the ambiguous category of European witchcraft.

After the interview had ended I confronted Ginzburg whether he was aware of the impact of his research on contemporary areas of modern Western magical praxis. He admitted that at times he would type in “benandanti” on google search and come across such references. However, he was adamant about this not being the intention of his books research and conclusions. Due to the fact the he was pressed for time he refrained from commenting further but remained open to further future discussion. Recognising the effect that Ginzburg has had on various contemporary reimagined constructions of witchcraft, with emphasis on ‘traditional’, I began to wonder to what extent are we as religious scholars and historians responsible for contemporary configurations of ethnographic reconstructed realities stemming from our object of study?

Contemporary accounts of witchcraft and magic, such as those documented in the academic study of Western esotericism have clearly been associated with practitioners’ self-conceptions, indicating that this must be considered explicitly in academic representations. One problematic area of concern, though, is whether and to what extent is our academic research into such areas related to the formations of such identities. For example, various scholars of Western esotericism have emphasised the incompatibility of academic research with an esotericist agenda.[7] However, such a view fails at times to grasp the reality of how academic research into areas of Western esoteric discourse have affected arrangements of self-representation. In other words, research into esotericism fails to act as an autonomous autocrat, due to the fact that the self-realisation of the interrelationship of ‘academic esotericism’ and ‘applied esotericism’ have become a part of the history of esotericism.

A more inclusive approach to the study of legitimation adopted by contemporary witches, magicians, and so on would necessarily embrace a discourse community not identical with only the practitioners, but all who participate in its articulation. This can also apply to the Roman Inquisition’s description and identification of witchcraft that has continued to inspire both popular and theological portrayals stemming from misrepresentations of historical accounts such as the benandanti. If one is to understand categories of modern Western witchcraft and magic as general terms of identification reproduced through scholarly discourse, diachronous and synchronous dimensions of methodological consideration are vital. The synchronous dimension of methodological application would present such ethnographic phenomena as distributed through various discursive networks simultaneously, which the participants may renegotiate alongside corresponding academic objectives. The diachronous criterion however demands that we can only refer to the potential of historical sources, whether articulated directly as primary source materials or interpreted through the lenses of academic analysis, becoming synchronic manifestations by locating the parameters that set the time and place for the entry point of such self-representations.

[1] See Needham, Rodney, ‘Polythetic Classification: Convergence and Consequences’. In Man, 10, 1975, 349-369.

[2] Ginzburg, Carlo, ‘Preface’. In Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, viii. For Mircea Eliade’s also gave his support of Ginzburg see ‘Some Observations on European Witchcraft’. In History of Religions 14, 1975, 153-158.

[3] Regarding a brief analysis of Ginzburg’s contention on the diffusionist shamanistic roots see John, ‘Journeys to the World of the Dead: The work of Carlo Ginzburg’. In Journal of Social History, 25: 3, 1991, 618-619.

[4] Direct quotation taken from Martin, 1991, 616.

[5] Due to the scope and limits of my response to his interview, I will not be addressing them. For a more in depth survey and references to various criticisms see Martin, 1991,620-621.

[6] For example see http://xoanon.co.uk and http://www.threehandspress.com/index.php for references, sources, and contemporary literature.

[7] Hanegraaff, Wouter, J., ‘Beyond the Yates Paradigm: The Study of Western Esotericism between Counterculture and New Complexity’. In Aries 1, 2001, 29-30.

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Religious Studies Opportunities Digest – 31 January 2014

wordleWelcome to the fifth RSP Opportunities Digest for 2014. As ever, please remember that we are not responsible for any content contained herein unless it is directly related to the RSP. If you have any content for future digests, please contact us via the various options on our ‘contact’ page. If you are enquiring about any of the opportunities listed below, please contact the organizers directly.

To skip to specific content within this digest, please use the table of contents to the right of your screen. This digest has been significantly pared down to basic details and web links. We hope this meets with your approval.

Calls for Papers

Denton Conference on ‘Implicit Religion’ and ‘Spirituality’

May 2014. See attached pdf for details.

The Uses of Witchcraft in Modern Germany

German Studies Association Conference, Kansas City, MO, 18-21

September 2014

http://www.h-net.org/announce/show.cgi?ID=209887

Igbo Conference 2014, May 2-3, SOAS, University of London

http://www.soas.ac.uk/cas/events/conferences/igbo-conference/

AAR Regional Meetings

NEW ENGLAND and CANADIAN MARITIMES REGIONAL MEETING of the AMERICAN ACADEMY of RELIGION

Massachusetts, New England and Canadian Maritimes region of the AAR (NEMAAR), April 26, 2014.

http://www.h-net.org/announce/show.cgi?ID=209878

2014 Eastern International Regional Meeting

Syracuse University

Syracuse, New York

May 2–3, 2014

http://www.eiraar.net/cfp

Evil Incarnate: Manifestations of Villains and Villainy

11-13 July 2014 Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH

http://www.case.edu/artsci/engl/evilincarnate

Religious History Association Conference

Brisbane, Australia 8-10 July 2014

http://sapmea.asn.au/conventions/aha2014/

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion

October 31-November 2, 2014

JW Marriott, Indianapolis, Indiana

http://www.sssrweb.org/news.cfm?newsid=208

Interdisciplinary Conference on Religion in Everyday lives

Vienna, Austria, 28-29 March 2014.

http://socialsciencesandhumanities.com/upcoming-conferences-call-for-papers/index.html

Entangled Worlds: Science, Religion, and Materiality

Drew Theological School, New Jersey, 28-30 March 2014

http://depts.drew.edu/tsfac/colloquium/13/about.html

Lecture – Neutrality and Religious Freedom

Daniel Weinstock, McGill University

UCL Department of Political Science, Thursday, 6 February 2014 from 17:00 to 19:00 (GMT)

http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/neutrality-and-religious-freedom-tickets-10368571677?aff=eorg

Jobs

Fo Guang University

Assistant Professor (or higher), Chinese Buddhism

http://www.h-net.org/jobs/job_display.php?id=48364

Call for Submissions – Nomos Journal

1st Quarter 2014

http://www.nomosjournal.org/about

Research Fellowships

(Trans-)formation of religious traditions in the context of intra- and interreligious contact

Käte Hamburger Kolleg, Ruhr University Bochum, Germany.

http://www.khk.ceres.rub.de/en/news/all/en-20140128-cfa-tradition-fellowships/

 

Podcasts

Explaining Witchcraft: Response to ‘Witchcraft in Slovenia’

In her interview, Mirjam Mencej discusses her fascinating research into witchcraft in rural Slovenia. She conducted field work in Eastern Slovenia into people’s beliefs on witchcraft. Though restricted to rural areas in Eastern Slovenia, she claims belief in witchcraft is very much alive. She distinguishes traditional witchcraft sharply from modern neo-pagan witchcraft like you find in Wicca. In traditional witchcraft a witch is above all a person (usually a woman) who does harm by using supernatural forces.

According to Mencej, people believe that all witches to share malevolent agency. Nonetheless, various types of witches can be distinguished. A first type is the ‘neighborhood witch’. Neighborhood witches are believed to cause misfortune to their neighbors. They are often invoked to explain diseases or other misfortunes. A second kind is the ‘village witch’. These are witches who are recognized by certain physical characteristics like ugliness or limping. Someone can also be classified as village witch because of her reputation. Reputation can be inherited from one’s parents or result from having certain character traits. A third type is the ‘night witch’. These witches are believed to appear in the form of flickering lights and make people lose their orientation at night. Unlike neighborhood witches, they do not cause economic damage but are also responsible for misfortunes, namely leading people astray. People discuss different types of witches under different discourses yet they are often talked about as similar.

Mencej also discusses a fourth group, the ‘unwitchers’. These are not witches themselves but provide services to counteract witchcraft. They nihilate the witches’ malevolent forces by giving instructions. They also aid in the identification of witches. According to Mencej, they are no unwitchers anymore. They lost much of their clientele in the late 1970’s and have since died of old age.

Mencej suggestsbelief in witchcraft has a mainly explanatory function. For example, witchcraft can serve as an explanation for why misfortune befalls people or why they get lost at night. Belief in witchcraft is also a valuable source of justification. Mencej gives the example of a young man who was unable to get a job. Rather than attributing this to emotional malefunction, his unemployment was attributed to witchcraft. This allowed the young man to avoid the social stigma that often comes with being diagnosed with emotional dysfunction. For his parents an explanation in terms of witchcraft avoided blame for bad parenting. Witchcraft is also useful as an explanation for why workers refuse to work late at night or to instruct children to be careful.

At first glance Mencej’s explanatory account fits well with what she says about the evolution of witchcraft belief since the 1970’s. We already noted that unwitchers did not attract clientele anymore and disappeared. Mencej notes that since that 1970’s public discourse about witchcraft became more difficult (although private discourse survived). She connects this to societal evolution in Slovenia. Since the 1970’s, people in Slovenia got easier access to water, electricity, television and the like. Since then, belief in witchcraft appears to have lost much of its force. Although she does not make it explicit, Mencej suggests that societal evolution eroded the explanatory function of witchcraft. Witchcraft had to compete with new or alternative explanations. With technological advance came information about how misfortunes arise through natural means. This likely eroded belief in witchcraft.

Near the end of the interview, Mencej makes another suggestion that challenges her story of societal evolution. Rather than diminishing as a result of societal evolution, witchcraft may instead have simply changed She notes that although unwitchers have disappeared, people sometimes resort to new-age therapies to undo harm by witchcraft. In new-age therapies, the source of harm is often not located in an external witch but in the bewitched person herself. New-age therapists urge people to look for ‘the witch within themselves’ rather than undoing harm done by external witches. This suggests that witchcraft does not disappear because of societal change but evolves with it. Mencej attributes the change to a shift in focus from communal identity toward individual responsibility , which characterizes many contemporary neo-liberal societies.

Mencej’s explanatory account is certainly a useful paradigm for studying traditional witchcraft. Some points she touches on, however, suggest there is more going on at a deeper level, namely that of the human mind. In his landmark book ‘Religion Explained’[i] Pascal Boyer argued that explanatory accounts of religion put the cart before the horse. Often belief in God or gods is seen as an explanation for natural phenomena, for example for earthquakes or smaller misfortunes. Boyer argues that this account evades the question why gods are considered good explanations for these phenomena. To answer this question we need to look deeper, namely at the human cognitive apparatus. A closer look could reveal why people tend to refer to gods as explanations for natural phenomena.

Boyer’s insight can be applied to traditional witchcraft belief. The question can be asked why malevolent activity by witches is considered a good explanation for misfortune. Mencej’s suggestion near the end that witchcraft belief does not disappear but evolves also suggests that witchcraft belief goes deeper than its explanatory function. When people are confronted with rival explanations in contemporary times, their witchcraft beliefs do not seem to disappear but their beliefs are adapted. This strongly suggests that there is more to witchcraft belief than its apparent explanatory function.

Boyer made suggestions why belief in gods comes easily.[ii] To my knowledge, no suggestions have been made why belief in witchcraft comes easily. Underlying the belief might be a belief in continuity between human will and nature; that is a belief that humans can influence the natural world with their will. Famous experiments like the Heider-Simmel experiment suggest that humans tend to see artifacts as minded.[iii] There is also evidence that humans are inclined to see nature as a living organism.[iv] This does not get us to the continuity belief yet. For this more research is definitely needed.

Probing a deeper, cognitive level of witchcraft belief probably fell beyond Mencej’s scope of research. Given the recent explosion in cognitive theories of religious belief the lack of interest in witchcraft belief is remarkable. I suggested that some of the paradigms in the cognitive study of religion could be applied to the study of witchcraft. These will be additions to Mencej’s research rather than challenges.

References

[i] Boyer, Pascal. Religion explained: The evolutionary origins of religious thought. No. 170. Basic books, 2001.

[ii] He argued that one reason why belief in gods comes easily is because they violate some ontological expectations and hence are more memorable.

[iii] Heider, Fritz, and Marianne Simmel. “An experimental study of apparent behavior.” The American Journal of Psychology 57.2 (1944): 243-259.

Heide rand Simmel showed a short video of two triangles moving around to subjects and asked the mto describe what they sawy afterwards. Many described the video by referring to the triangles as minded. For example, they said that the one triangle was trying to get the attention of the other or that they were in love.

[iv] Kelemen, Deborah, and Evelyn Rosset. “The human function compunction: Teleological explanation in adults.” Cognition 111.1 (2009): 138-143.

 

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 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.

 

Witchcraft in Rural Slovenia

In this podcast, professor Mirjam Mencej talks about contemporary witchcraft in Styria region in rural Eastern 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? What makes them effective? Who could gain the reputation of being a witch and why? Mencej also describes the role of the ‘unwitcher’, a person who had the power to counter bewitchment and detect the witch responsible.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


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.

MM: Definitely.

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?

HL: Yes.

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.

MM: Yes

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?

HL: Yes.

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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Pagan Scholarship from a Pagan Perspective

Ethan Doyle White, a PhD student in Anthropology of Religion at University College London, recently discussed his research into his 2015 book Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft. In this interview with the RSP, Doyle White states that he wrote this text ‘[…]to summarise the state of all previous research on Wicca […]’ and to fill an obvious gap in academic scholarship. While I applaud his attempt to write an initial definitive text, and certainly agree with him that there is a crucial lack of scholarship on Wicca and contemporary forms of Paganism, Doyle White posits a number of understandings that, as both a Pagan scholar and Pagan Minister, I must open for further discussion and interpretation.

In his opening response, Doyle White cites that ‘Wicca is the largest religion within contemporary Paganism’ citing unnamed ‘sociological, anthropological and ethnographic’ evidence. Doyle White’s statement reveals two distinct problematic issues. Firstly, Doyle White appears to be confusing the difference between Witchcraft and Wicca often presenting them as one in the same when they are quite different traditions.  Although Doyle White is correct in his historical connection between Jules Michelet, Margaret Murray, and Gerald Gardner in the foundation of Wicca in the early twentieth century, he appears to have missed a vital point. Gardner was the first to write down a dogma for the Wiccan tradition—a literal guide for adherents as to structure, form, ritual, and beliefs. A majority of contemporary Wiccans are Gardnerian Wiccans and follow (and in some cases modify) the templates Gardner constructed. High Priestess Phyllis Curott is a prominent contemporary Wiccan who has worked with the UN, the Parliament of World Religions, and Harvard’s Religious Pluralism Project. However, there are a number of contemporary Witchcraft traditions that pre-date Gardner such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn  (founded in 1888) and the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (who trace their historical roots to 1500 BCE). There are contemporary covens (or loosely-organised groups) of Witches both in the US and in the UK that do not self-identify as Wiccan; these Witches (both male and female) perform rituals and spellcasting either in solitary practice or within a coven or loosely-organised group. None of these traditions should be confused with or categorised with Wicca; they are various forms of Witchcraft.

Another complication with Doyle White’s statement that ‘Wicca is the largest religion within contemporary Paganism’ lies in the classification ‘Wicca’ and the opportunity to use it as a self-identifying label within available contemporary sociological data. Religious identifications that are alternative to the major world religions are relatively new to census questionnaires. However, there is a stark difference between the available options on religious identity in the 2012 US Census than there are in the 2011 UK Census. The US lists only four options: Wiccan, Pagan, Spiritualists, and Other; whereas the UK includes religious affiliations such as Wicca, Druid, Spiritualist, Heathen, Satanism, Witchcraft, New Age, Shamanism, Pagan, Pantheism, and the highly-popular Jedi Knight. What this implies is that the data from the US is skewed if adherents from a wide variety of traditions have only four limiting options to choose from; a practicing Witch can tick either ‘Wicca’ or ‘Pagan’ as a self-identifying religious affiliation. Whereas, in the United Kingdom much more data is available as to specific religious affiliation including a variety of new religious movements. Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States (2003) by Helen Berger, Evan Leach, and Leigh Shaffer, included six ‘Neo-Pagan’ movements, three of which predominated the survey: Wiccans, Pagans, and Goddess-worshippers, but also included Druids, Shamans, and the eclectic Unitarian Universalist Pagans. Ultimately, the US Census forces practitioners to choose between self-identifying as either Wiccan or Pagan obfuscating the data’s accuracy through the limitation of choices. In essence, the Wiccan community is, perhaps, much smaller than Doyle White asserts.

While accurately discussing the range of theological principles found in Wicca (from ditheism and polytheism to feminist monotheism), Doyle White includes atheists and agnostics into this theological array stating that this category includes those working with Jungian archetypes. My own doctoral research into the significance of Jung and post-Jungian theory to the development of the Western Goddess Movement contradicts Doyle White’s assessment. In fact, while the Jungian Goddess archetype can be traced back in the US to the 1920s and M Esther Harding (a devout student of Jung’s), evidence indicates that post-Jungian Jean Shinoda Bolen created a bridge from theory to religious praxis back in 1994 with her rebirth memoir Crossing to Avalon. Jung’s influence on Western faith traditions from the Catholic Charismatic movement to the development and advancement of Bolen’s post-Jungian Goddess Feminism, as a faith tradition which openly espouses a monotheaistic paradigm, stands in direct contradiction to Doyle White’s assertion that all post-Jungians are atheists or agnostics. While some post-Jungians remain purely analytical, a vast majority of contemporary post-Jungian Goddess adherents have crossed the bridge from analytics to praxis and consider themselves perhaps more ‘spiritual’ than ‘religious’.

When speaking of spellcasting, Doyle White states it is often used ‘in a negative sense’ preserving fictional caricatures of Witches dichotomously as evil or good. The perpetuation of these divergent and inaccurate stereotypes can only further hinder critical scholarship in this field. Phyllis Curott attempted to educate and change ‘the world’s prejudice’ in her 1998 memoir, Book of Shadows.

In closing, Doyle White calls for new terminology, preferring the Academic Study of Paganism, and I agree. Pagan Studies is problematic as a label and is often exclusionary, but I disagree with Doyle White when he states that we must stop accepting Pagan definitions from Pagans. Admittedly, definitions from lay adherents are often idealised and problematic, however, some of Doyle White’s statements exemplify the crucial need for viable Pagan scholarship from within the community that is analytically useful to scholars. Advancement of this scholarly pursuit requires the implementation of Academic Study of Paganism departments in which a multidisciplinary approach is beneficial, but must also include practicing Pagans. Ultimately Doyle White makes a good contribution to Pagan scholarship, but he exemplifies the need for Pagan academics and critical Pagan analysis.

References

Berger HA, Leach EA and Shaffer LS (2003) Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo Pagans in the United States. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Bolen, JS (1994) Crossing to Avalon: A Woman’s Midlife Pilgrimage. New York: Harper Collins.

Curott P (1998) Book of Shadows: A Modern Woman’s Journey into the Wisdom of Witchcraft and the Magic of the Goddess. New York: Broadway Books.

Harding ME (1971) Woman’s Mysteries: Ancient and Modern. Introduction by CG Jung. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

‘Iolana P (2016) Jung and Goddess: The Significance of Jungian and post-Jungian Theory to the Development of the Western Goddess Movement. An unpublished Thesis. University of Glasgow.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2004) ‘Focus on Religion’ Available at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/ethnicity/focus-on-religion/index.html

_____. (2012) Religion in England and Wales 2011. Available at:  http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/census/2011-census/key-statistics-for-local-authorities-in-england-and-wales/rpt-religion.html

U.S Census Bureau (2012) Statistical Abstract of the United States, Table 75.  Self-Described Religious Identification of Adult Population: 1990, 2001, and 2008. Available at:  http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0075.pdf

Doyle White E (2012) In Defence of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen’s Critique. In: The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol 14, No 1 (5-21).

A Critical Introduction to the History, Beliefs, and Practices of Wiccans

In this interview Ethan Doyle White, author of the book Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, introduces his systematic overview of the contested history and multifaceted developments of Wicca. White presents his own methodological approaches and theoretical data utilising both emic and etic sources in a thematic framework. Based on the sheer number of people identifying as Wiccans, book sales, the media, and the popularity of the term, White argues that Wicca is truly the most popular and widespread expression of modern Paganism. He then discusses the ‘invented’ claims of Wicca being a continuity of European pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices, the relationship between religion and magic in Wiccan discourse in reference to theological elements and ritual practices that define Wicca, and then a cross-comparison of Wiccans and self-proclaimed practitioners of ‘Traditional Witchcraft’. White also discusses the divide in Wicca over more traditionally inclined practitioners and more modern eclectic practitioners. Regarding the socio-political dimensions of Wicca, White examines ways in which Wiccan discourse can be conceived as a political activist movement regarding gender rights, environmental issues, and socio-economic policies. On a final note, White dissects the current academic debate on the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of scholars who are Wiccans studying other practitioners of Wicca, and concludes by presenting his own view on what the future holds for Wicca.

Listeners might also be interested in our podcasts on 21st Century Irish Paganism, Druidry and the Definition of Religion, and Animism, amongst others. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, smudging sticks, besomes, and more.

Futures Found Wanting

In her recent book on confession and witchcraft in early modern France, French Studies scholar Virginia Krause argues that early modern demonology was a ‘science of the night’. The activities of the Devil, and of the witches who served him, occurred in the darkest hours, ‘when the shadows hide his shadow’ (2015, 49). Their influence was felt, but their crimes were hidden. For the period’s witch-hunting demonologists, ‘trying to understand witchcraft was like peering into the darkness of an impenetrable night’ (ibid. 55). To compensate for this visual obfuscation, several strategies were developed for gathering evidence of the witch’s occult acts. The ‘auricular regime’ of confession itself was the most prominent, creating a new epistemic framework within which testimony became seen as the guarantor of truth. Through this and other methods old and new, the demonologist came to believe he could at least perceive—if not necessarily pierce—the darkness that veiled demonological truths.

Krause’s work is distant in historical and geographical focus from David Robertson’s own, which explores the discursive function of the UFO in modern millennial conspiracist cultures. Both, however, share an attentiveness to the construction of socioreligious threats, and the epistemic strategies by which these constructions are realised. Figured as discursive objects, both the witch and the UFO exceeded (or were thought to exceed) the epistemic capacities of contemporary knowledge, necessitating the creation of new forms of knowing. Robertson explores such new forms both in terms of their epistemic strategies and their discursive function. Regarding the former, he analyses the role of epistemic capital (in millennial conspiracisms and as a concept more broadly) in creating counter-epistemic economies that seek to encapsulate and exceed normative epistemic frameworks, suturing traditional and scientific knowledge to alternative knowledges: experience, channelling, and the painstaking synthesis of data and connection. Regarding the latter, he identifies discourses of ‘prevention’ as a strategy of alleviating cognitive dissonance when prophecies fail. In these discourses, prophetic failures are coded not as the fault of the prophet or believers, but as the result of malevolent agencies blocking the advent of utopia. In doing so, it relocates blame from the self, and the community aligned with that self, and places it onto an Other, for which epistemic capital provides the means of discernment and delineation.

Such delineated qualities often mimic those of traditional, theological demons. Indeed, the idea that contemporary conspiracism’s malevolent forces might replicate features of Christian demonology is not itself a novel point. Robertson himself notes this, as have Michael Barkun (2013) and Christopher Partridge (2005). Millennial conspiracism thus comes to share much with more traditional Christian theodicies. Evil becomes its problem to solve. But while those theodicies might appeal to the unknowability of divine will or the demonically-induced fallenness of creation to explain the persistence of worldly evil, conspiracism (also) situates it in the machinations of shadowy networks of agents, more and less supernatural. It is here, more than anywhere else, that conspiracism truly meets demonology. It is simply not enough to name the source of evil or even to understand its nature. It must be located, codified, and catalogued. Its agents must be identified. Whether the means are the confessional regimes of the old scientia daemonis or the experiential, channelled, or synthesised strategies of millennial conspiracism, the conspiracy’s demonological truths—whether literal or metaphoric—must be unveiled.

As a discursive strategy of Othering, Robertson argues conspiracy is specific in that it constructs Others as both active malevolences and as originating from within society itself. The witch, often marginalised by class and gender, might seem an odd comparison here, but the crime of witchcraft was one of treason as much as heresy. Their messages encrypted in demonic languages and their actions concealed in deepest darkness, witches were discursively constructed as walking unseen among the good folk of Christendom, secretly turning society to demoniac ends. The witch was thus a part of Christendom, but its deviant part, the part that needed to be located and excised so that the Body might heal and world order could assume its proper path. For those who have spent time with conspiracist cultures, millennialist or otherwise, this image (albeit perhaps modernised, secularised, or overtly de-Christianised) will be a familiar one. Conspirators—whether human, alien, demonic, or some combination or hybridisation of the three—operate discursively to signal a world potentially being led astray. Their crimes are hidden, but their influence is felt.

Conspiracists, who often construct themselves as heretics and mavericks free of the constraints of socioreligious orthodoxy, would likely abhor any comparison to the witch-hunting demonologists of early modernity. Today’s hoarders of epistemic capital are rarely the rich or powerful. They work (or would like to think they work) at the societal margins, circulating in counter-economies of secrets and disregarded data. By contrast, the early modern demonologists were ultimately agents of regnant order. While they strove (at least theoretically) to maintain a world order constructed as under threat, millennial conspiracists strive to uncover those forces preventing its radical transformation. Both, however, depict a profound anxiety about the trajectory of their society and the desire to rectify it. They share that disorienting sense of crisis, exacerbated by events real and imagined, seen as driving many apocalyptic, millennialist and conspiracist narratives, and the identities of the communities that narrate and are narrated by them (O’Leary 1994). Their anxieties are formulated around perceived failures of historical progression. In millennial conspiracism and early modern demonology alike looms the threat of an unwilled and unwanted tomorrow. When prophecy fails, or the present simply becomes written as ‘the failure of the future’—to use Robyn Weigman’s formulation of apocalypse (2000, 807)—contingency measures become necessary, and the construction of malevolent counter-agencies can become a matter of cognitive and communal survival. Behind both conspiracism and demonology lies the ascription of agency to the shifts in a society, not just in the concatenation of disparate specificities—individuals, movements, organisations, events—but in gestalt. Society as a whole, and the future that society seemed to promise, is seen as failing to reach its fulfilment.

But the processes of societal transformation are often opaque. Thus the means for their detection requires the development of a new ‘science of the night,’ one which could piece the darkness veiling demonological truths. Robertson’s work lays bare many of the methods of this new scientia daemonis. Its means of accruing epistemic capital shares traits with both its historical forebears and its contemporary cousins. Such family resemblances point to another of Robertson’s observations: the lines drawn between ‘new’ religions and their older—more codified, more established, (ergo) more legitimate—kindred. When a Christian activist sits in prayer and the Holy Spirit reveals the demonic forces structuring the US Democratic Party—to use an example Sean McCloud reports on (2015, 32)—the line between traditional revelation and the channelled knowledge of a David Icke or Wilcock becomes at best nebulous. Both are inadmissible in the courts of dominant epistemic strategies, but they nonetheless draw on the same sources of knowledge and strategies of knowing to identify, codify, comprehend, and thereby either conquer or circumvent those worldly and otherworldly forces striving secretly in the service of futures found wanting.

References

  • Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Second Edition (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2013).
  • Virginia Krause, Demonology, Witchcraft, and Confession in Early Modern France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  • Sean McCloud, American Possessions: Battling Demons in the Contemporary United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
  • Stephen D. O’Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  • Christopher Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West, Volume 2: Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture, and Occulture (London and New York: Continuum, 2005).
  • Robyn Weigman, ‘Feminism’s Apocalyptic Futures,’ New Literary History 31:4 (2000), 805–825.

Taking Witchcraft and Possessions Seriously with Philip Almond

In this interview with Philip Almond, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Queensland and Deputy Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses, listeners are treated to a wide-ranging survey of the past decade of Almond’s work on witchcraft and demonic possession in early modern England. Beginning with Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Almond was among those that refocused discussions of this material to de-emphasize narratives and methods that had been located too centrally in the twentieth and not the sixteenth century. Witchcraft and possession were not medical phenomenon in any modern sense. They could not be written off as simple psychological episodes. Nor was it appropriate to bring modern tropes of mental health, rationalism, or religion as a private belief into the discussion of what people in the 16th to 18th centuries experienced.

Perhaps this discourse is largely a boon following Stuart Clark’s seminal Thinking With Demons (Oxford University Press, 1999). This included not just Almond’s Demonic Possession, but also Moshe Sluhovosky’s Believe Not Every Spirit (University of Chicago Press, 2007) and Sarah Ferber’s Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France (Routlege, 2004) among many other fine volumes. As a body of scholarship, these works have increasingly sought to excise the present from its intrusive role in the analysis of the past. Can we discuss our historical subjects without seeing them as moderns who are simply living in the past? If this is familiar, you might be remembering some version of the steady drumbeat of David Lowenthal’s now clichéd dictate that the past is a foreign country.

Among historians (and anthropologists) this over-commitment to context may feel weatherworn, but for those in religious studies today it should be axiomatic. If a physician’s first pledge is to “do no harm,” then the scholar of religion must vow to “take religion seriously.” Almond’s reluctance to reduce witchcraft or possession to mere psychology is not on its face a rejection of reductionism writ large. He suggests early in the interview that he believes the root cause of the rise of possessions is millennialism or apocalypticism. Though we might be inclined to see witchcraft as a religious rebuttal to modernism, Almond appears unconvinced that the phenomenon can be a clear response to our contemporary understanding of this distinctive period of European history. “It’s too big a story,” he says, especially when a more obvious alternative is the specific consequences of the Reformation for individual branches of Christianity. If you’ll forgive the pun, the Devil is most certainly in the details.

What is striking about Almond’s consistent efforts to see the immediate and local contexts for witchcraft is the way it suggests that even our modern debates about the definition of religion are secondary to the challenges of historically-situated scholarship. To those who may have earlier leapt to ask, ‘what is the “religion” that we are taking seriously in the case of Almond’s subjects?’, the response is two-fold.

First, recognize how thoroughly such an inquiry is situated in the present. Such a modern scholarly category imposes an unwarranted discourse on our beleaguered subjects. It cannot possibly matter to long-gone early modern Europeans. Such inquiries benefit only us. If some version of the category advances our understanding of the relevance and significance of our subjects, it does not change the facts of our subjects’ experiences. After all, if we read the cultural guides about our “foreign country,” we haven’t changed the country’s citizens. Indeed, the danger is that in reading such a guide, we will change the citizens to appear to us as our guidebooks say they are. When the past has provided us as many truly excellent documents as early modern Europe has on witchcraft and possessions, what need have we to inject ourselves into their discussions? We have the details we need to compose a full picture of the era, its subjects, and much of the discourse surrounding demonic possession.

Second, Almond explains that it is the disconnects and differences between past and present that fuel his curiosity. Why is the past different? The efforts one must expend to answer such a question are wasted if we rush hurriedly to the present for some payoff about today’s society. While one duty of the scholar is to articulate the value of their work for the community that receives it, the receiving community must do the accompanying work of explaining why the present is different. This is a difference that matters to those of us today. It is also a disjuncture in scholarly products. When we fail to cleanly separate the line between past and present, as some works discussing demonic possession have done, the end result is a work that is likely to say more about how our modern ideas about religion or psychology succeed or fail in being persuasive in telling stories about the past for those in the present. A good story is not necessarily the same thing as excellent scholarship. In the former, readers are entertained and may find new ways to appreciate the differences of the present from the past. Only in the latter, however, are we likely to get a sense of what our subjects thought about witchcraft and possession. And then, if we so choose, we might ask, how central such ideas were to those things we would today describe as religious. I suspect, however, that even this mild extension is largely an exercise in anachronism.

I like to ask myself the following question of historically situated works. Are they tied so tightly to the moment when they were written that in the future they are likelier to be studied as representations of the scholarly moment of their production rather than for what they had to say about their subjects? I would like to think many of us strive to put the history of our subjects forward and not to become mere historiographical bywords for future scholars. I recommend Almond’s recent works as excellent models of being serious about the history of witchcraft and possession so that we might better understand that past on its own terms.

Witchcraft and Demonic Possession in Early Modern England

Although accounts of witchcraft and demonic possession can be found from virtually all cultures around the world, in the wake of the Reformation and the European wars of religion in the fifteenth century, accusations of witchcraft and instances of demonic possession reached fever pitch. This was particularly the case in early modern England.

Philip Almond discusses such phenomena not by providing any “slick” answers which explain them in simple sociological terms, but by looking at the “familiar cultural script” that played out in most instances of possession, and by keeping in mind the broader social context in which accusations of witchcraft were made (including the “strategic interests” of many accusers).

This interview is a distillation of Professor Almond’s recent publications on religious history in early modern England, and also includes discussion of his newly released work: The Devil: A New Biography.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

The Work of Carlo Ginzburg as the Researcher and the Reimagined Researched

During the EASR/IAHR/NGG 2014 Conference on Religion and Pluralities of Knowledge at the University of Groningen, I had the privilege of attending Carlo Ginzburg’s presentation, followed by his interview with the Religious Studies Project. I was impressed by his erudite observations, passion for sharing new ideas and research with both academic and non-academic audiences, and his friendly attitude towards the younger generations of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Throughout the interview Ginzburg shared his critical stance towards postmodern rhetoric regarding historical narratives, displaying an anti-Nietzschean approach to establishing sources and evidence in the analysis of historical data. Furthermore, I was impressed by his bold characterisation of ‘identity’ as “a dreadful word,” especially in relation to cultural and ethnic boundaries.

Having studied some of his major works, both initially as a non-specialist and now as a member of the academic community, I have always admired how Ginzburg allows his archival ethnographic experience to affect his research without succumbing to the excessive indulgence of fruitless self-reflexivity. A further area of his research that inspired me to pursue various ethnographic and hermeneutic paths has been his tendency to provide suppressed minorities with a voice addressing the complexities of the relationship between mythopoesis and microhistory.

Traditionally, historical studies of ‘witchcraft’ have tended to stress the function of the ‘witches’ and their beliefs, neglecting at times broader meanings of such socio-religious phenomena from the perspective of either the accused or the self-designated. During the 1960s, though, a young Carlo Ginzburg discovered in the Archepiscopal Archives of Udine, a town in the Italian province of Friuli, a series of documents relaying the existence of an alleged agrarian fertility cult active during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These findings have been translated and published in his books Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, detailing the events surrounding the trials of the members of this ‘cult’ referred to as the benandanti. These benandanti, through their testimonies of nocturnal flights, metamorphoses into animals, secret gatherings, and night battles against destructive witches and warlocks to protect the fertility of the crops and their communities, fitted easily into the stereotype of witches and their sabbaths, especially as portrayed by the Roman Inquisition during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Inspired by Vladimir Propp’s methodology as outlined in his Morphology of the Folktale, Ginzburg would later come to discover possible connections of polythetic classification[1] regarding the beliefs and practices of the benandanti, echoing the diffusion of an earlier agrarian cult across Europe. Evidence for his thesis was presented through his discovery of cases such as the Livonian werewolf, the Corsican mazzeri, the Peloponnesian kallikantzaroi, and others displaying similarities with spatially distant myths and rites of Siberian shamans.”[2] These similarities can be outlined as:

i. Physical markings at birth indicating occult methods of communication.

ii. Entry into states of trance.

iii. Departure of the spirit from the body in either a human or animal form.

iv. Battles against destructive witches to protect the harvest and the community.

v. Such experiences occurring at special times of the year.[3]

However, the defining aspect of Ginzburg’s historiographical work in my opinion is delineated in Storia notturna: una decifrazione del sabba where he writes:

 We have distinguished two cultural currents, of diverse origin: on the one hand, the theme, elaborated by inquisitors and lay judges, of a conspiracy hatched by a sect or a group hostile to society; on the other, elements of shamanistic origin, now rooted in folk culture, such as magical flight and metamorphoses into animals.[4]

Despite Ginzburg’s academic legacy, some of his historical hypotheses have attracted mixed reviews.[5] In rapport with some criticisms, I still remain in favour of some of his conclusive remarks, and especially his noble endeavours to overcome the ideological antithesis between seemingly rational and irrational categories. In addition, some of his claims regarding the human body, construed through historico-cultural paradigms, yet stemming from the universal nature of our biological make-up as a species, I personally find attractive for further interdisciplinary debate. However, what I will be addressing in this response, which I believe has become an area of concern for both ethnographers and subjects, are the effects that the ‘researcher’ might have in organising and constructing the identity of the ‘researched’ in emic self-representations.

Throughout my ethnographic explorations I have come across various practitioners of what may be referred to as ‘modern Western magic’ self-identifying as ‘Traditional Witchcraft’, ‘Sabbatic Craft Tradition’, and so on.[6] Upon further investigation, I came to realise that despite emic claims of inspiration and insight deriving from direct ritual experience, some of these individuals and groups clearly drew upon the works of Ginzburg and other similar scholars in establishing a sense of structure and identity. Although I am not undermining their self-representations generated through extensive research and disciplined practice, I find it fascinating how we researchers at times tend to neglect how we may be responsible for reimagining and perpetuating synchronic adaptations of historico-religious phenomena, such as the ambiguous category of European witchcraft.

After the interview had ended I confronted Ginzburg whether he was aware of the impact of his research on contemporary areas of modern Western magical praxis. He admitted that at times he would type in “benandanti” on google search and come across such references. However, he was adamant about this not being the intention of his books research and conclusions. Due to the fact the he was pressed for time he refrained from commenting further but remained open to further future discussion. Recognising the effect that Ginzburg has had on various contemporary reimagined constructions of witchcraft, with emphasis on ‘traditional’, I began to wonder to what extent are we as religious scholars and historians responsible for contemporary configurations of ethnographic reconstructed realities stemming from our object of study?

Contemporary accounts of witchcraft and magic, such as those documented in the academic study of Western esotericism have clearly been associated with practitioners’ self-conceptions, indicating that this must be considered explicitly in academic representations. One problematic area of concern, though, is whether and to what extent is our academic research into such areas related to the formations of such identities. For example, various scholars of Western esotericism have emphasised the incompatibility of academic research with an esotericist agenda.[7] However, such a view fails at times to grasp the reality of how academic research into areas of Western esoteric discourse have affected arrangements of self-representation. In other words, research into esotericism fails to act as an autonomous autocrat, due to the fact that the self-realisation of the interrelationship of ‘academic esotericism’ and ‘applied esotericism’ have become a part of the history of esotericism.

A more inclusive approach to the study of legitimation adopted by contemporary witches, magicians, and so on would necessarily embrace a discourse community not identical with only the practitioners, but all who participate in its articulation. This can also apply to the Roman Inquisition’s description and identification of witchcraft that has continued to inspire both popular and theological portrayals stemming from misrepresentations of historical accounts such as the benandanti. If one is to understand categories of modern Western witchcraft and magic as general terms of identification reproduced through scholarly discourse, diachronous and synchronous dimensions of methodological consideration are vital. The synchronous dimension of methodological application would present such ethnographic phenomena as distributed through various discursive networks simultaneously, which the participants may renegotiate alongside corresponding academic objectives. The diachronous criterion however demands that we can only refer to the potential of historical sources, whether articulated directly as primary source materials or interpreted through the lenses of academic analysis, becoming synchronic manifestations by locating the parameters that set the time and place for the entry point of such self-representations.

[1] See Needham, Rodney, ‘Polythetic Classification: Convergence and Consequences’. In Man, 10, 1975, 349-369.

[2] Ginzburg, Carlo, ‘Preface’. In Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, viii. For Mircea Eliade’s also gave his support of Ginzburg see ‘Some Observations on European Witchcraft’. In History of Religions 14, 1975, 153-158.

[3] Regarding a brief analysis of Ginzburg’s contention on the diffusionist shamanistic roots see John, ‘Journeys to the World of the Dead: The work of Carlo Ginzburg’. In Journal of Social History, 25: 3, 1991, 618-619.

[4] Direct quotation taken from Martin, 1991, 616.

[5] Due to the scope and limits of my response to his interview, I will not be addressing them. For a more in depth survey and references to various criticisms see Martin, 1991,620-621.

[6] For example see http://xoanon.co.uk and http://www.threehandspress.com/index.php for references, sources, and contemporary literature.

[7] Hanegraaff, Wouter, J., ‘Beyond the Yates Paradigm: The Study of Western Esotericism between Counterculture and New Complexity’. In Aries 1, 2001, 29-30.

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Religious Studies Opportunities Digest – 31 January 2014

wordleWelcome to the fifth RSP Opportunities Digest for 2014. As ever, please remember that we are not responsible for any content contained herein unless it is directly related to the RSP. If you have any content for future digests, please contact us via the various options on our ‘contact’ page. If you are enquiring about any of the opportunities listed below, please contact the organizers directly.

To skip to specific content within this digest, please use the table of contents to the right of your screen. This digest has been significantly pared down to basic details and web links. We hope this meets with your approval.

Calls for Papers

Denton Conference on ‘Implicit Religion’ and ‘Spirituality’

May 2014. See attached pdf for details.

The Uses of Witchcraft in Modern Germany

German Studies Association Conference, Kansas City, MO, 18-21

September 2014

http://www.h-net.org/announce/show.cgi?ID=209887

Igbo Conference 2014, May 2-3, SOAS, University of London

http://www.soas.ac.uk/cas/events/conferences/igbo-conference/

AAR Regional Meetings

NEW ENGLAND and CANADIAN MARITIMES REGIONAL MEETING of the AMERICAN ACADEMY of RELIGION

Massachusetts, New England and Canadian Maritimes region of the AAR (NEMAAR), April 26, 2014.

http://www.h-net.org/announce/show.cgi?ID=209878

2014 Eastern International Regional Meeting

Syracuse University

Syracuse, New York

May 2–3, 2014

http://www.eiraar.net/cfp

Evil Incarnate: Manifestations of Villains and Villainy

11-13 July 2014 Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH

http://www.case.edu/artsci/engl/evilincarnate

Religious History Association Conference

Brisbane, Australia 8-10 July 2014

http://sapmea.asn.au/conventions/aha2014/

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion

October 31-November 2, 2014

JW Marriott, Indianapolis, Indiana

http://www.sssrweb.org/news.cfm?newsid=208

Interdisciplinary Conference on Religion in Everyday lives

Vienna, Austria, 28-29 March 2014.

http://socialsciencesandhumanities.com/upcoming-conferences-call-for-papers/index.html

Entangled Worlds: Science, Religion, and Materiality

Drew Theological School, New Jersey, 28-30 March 2014

http://depts.drew.edu/tsfac/colloquium/13/about.html

Lecture – Neutrality and Religious Freedom

Daniel Weinstock, McGill University

UCL Department of Political Science, Thursday, 6 February 2014 from 17:00 to 19:00 (GMT)

http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/neutrality-and-religious-freedom-tickets-10368571677?aff=eorg

Jobs

Fo Guang University

Assistant Professor (or higher), Chinese Buddhism

http://www.h-net.org/jobs/job_display.php?id=48364

Call for Submissions – Nomos Journal

1st Quarter 2014

http://www.nomosjournal.org/about

Research Fellowships

(Trans-)formation of religious traditions in the context of intra- and interreligious contact

Käte Hamburger Kolleg, Ruhr University Bochum, Germany.

http://www.khk.ceres.rub.de/en/news/all/en-20140128-cfa-tradition-fellowships/