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Speculative history! Shamanism and witchcraft in Early Modern Europe watch

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    In 1921, renowned Egyptologist Margaret Murray published the hugely influential book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. In it, Murray put forward the hypothesis that the women and men persecuted during the great witch hunts of the early modern period represented the remnants of a pre-Christian fertility cult. Drawing on the surviving transcripts of the trials, and in particular descriptions of the witch's sabbat, Murray claimed to have unearthed the existence of an underground Pagan religion in early modern Europe, whose adherents worshiped a two-faced horned god and met by night to perform fertility rites. Murray's book was complete nonsense. I say again, complete nonsense. Showing no regard for the historical method, Murray had deliberately ignored the more fantastical elements contained within the source material. References to flying, metamorphosis, and other magical acts were replaced with ". . ."s. Despite this, Murray's thesis was hugely influential, leading to the creation of the modern day Wicca religion, and until 1969, the Encyclopaedia Britannica disgracefully used a peace written by Murray as their entry on witchcraft.

    But was she maybe just a tiny bit kinda sorta by accident and not really but kinda right?

    While exploring the Archepiscopal Archives of Udine, Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg came across a curious series of Inquisitorial transcripts originating from the Fruili region of northern Italy. In these transcripts, which span from 1575 to 1675, the accused freely confess, indeed, insist, that they are benandanti, meaning on certain nights during the Ember weeks, they were compelled to leave their bodies behind in their beds and be transported in spirit to mystical realms. The male benandanti would claim they were called out to do battle with the witches, arming themselves with stalks of fennel, in order to defend the fertility of the fields. The women, on the other hand, would describe joining in with great processions of the dead led by a matriarch, feasting and dancing with spirits and animals, going from house to house, and making contact with recently deceased locals. Reading the transcripts, it is clear that the inquisition struggled to come to terms with the elabourate thought-world of these peasants, and attempted to assimilate their testimonies into their own elite demonologies. Over the course of a hundred years, the inquisitors presiding over these investigations tried their best to force these beliefs to line up with their image of the witch's sabbat, and they largely succeeded. Ultimately, though, persecution of the benandanti only amounted to a few public penances. I guess the authorities weren't all that interested in such peasant nonsense.

    The transcripts are clear evidence for what some have described as a 'shamanistic' visionary tradition that had survived into early modern Europe. But were the benandanti an exception, as some have claimed, or part of a complex matrix of peasant beliefs that spanned the entire continent? In Livonia, we find the testimony of a self-purported werewolf named Theiss who claimed to go out during the Ember weeks to battle witches for the fertility of the fields, armed with an iron whip. In Hungary, people who called themselves the Taltos made similar claims, and in Dalmatia, we find a variation in the nocturnal vampire hunting escapades of the Kresniks. As recently as the 20th century, a seemingly related tradition was discovered Corsica, where people calling themselves the Mazzeri describe how they are compelled to go out in spirit on visionary, nocturnal hunts.

    Across Europe, we find evidence of women who claimed to go out at night in nocturnal processions, led by a goddess figure variously known as Richella, Dame Horiente, Abonde, Perchta or Holda, and ultimately identified by the elite with the pagan goddess Diana. The Fairy Queen of Scottish folklore seems to play a parallel role. Participants would identify these processions using terms such as 'the good society', 'the good neighbours', 'the good ladies', and so on. In Sicily, they were the Donas de Fuera - 'ladies of the outside'. But it wasn't just women. In 16th century Bavaria, Chonrad Stoeckhlin's visionary jaunts with the 'phantoms of the night' led to a witch panic that engulfed southern Germany, ultimately resulting in the executions of at least 150 people.

    So how are we to understand such experiences? Some historians argue that the evidence points to the existence of a web of interrelated shamanistic dream-cults in early modern Europe, all sharing a common ancestor in the form of some pre-historic religion that revered a mother-goddess, and whose followers would journey, in trance, to the lands of the dead. Such practices can be found among existing shamanistic traditions in Africa, South America and Siberia. Others are content to explain them as the fantasies of deluded men and women, who drew on folkloric material to construct their delusions.

    Anyway, I just think the whole topic is a fascinating off-shoot of my personal favourite topic of history, the witch hunts. Hopefully you guys find it interesting too, but believe me it's extremely difficult to compress it all into a single forum post. The subject goes a lot broader and deeper than I can go into here, but if you want to learn more you can start by picking up a cheap copy of Carlo Ginzburg's The Night Battles, or Wolfgan Behringer's Shaman of Oberstdorf.

    You watched the Witch?

    Cool film.
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