Ecstasies

Like many readers, I enjoy keying the books I read to the season. Long hot summers just seem to call for noir novels of passion and double-cross, like those of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, or for cynical tales of remittance men slowly going to seed in the tropics -- one of the specialties of Somerset Maugham -- or even for the occasional ethnographic travel classic, such as A.W. Kinglake’s Eothen, Claude Levi-Strausss’s Tristes Tropiques, or Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands. Come the bleak afternoons and dark evenings of December, however, and I settle back with the ghost stories of M.R. James or succumb again to that old advertising slogan “A Christie for Christmas,” though I sometimes substitute John Dickson Carr’s eerie locked-room howdunits for Dame Agatha’s golden-age mysteries.

But in October I naturally think of Halloween. And Halloween means ghosts and werewolves and skeletons -- but most of all, it means witches.

To my mind, there can never be too many books about witches. If you don’t treasure them already, check out Fritz Leiber’s classic chiller Conjure Wife, or Roald Dahl’s exciting (and funny and seriously frightening) children’s novel, The Witches, or the wondrous picture book by Chris Van Allsburg, The Witch’s Broom. In nonfiction, too, one can find considerable perverse pleasure in such provocative -- and largely unreliable- - works as Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe or the many volumes of that strange antiquarian of the supernatural, Montague Summers. According to novelist Robertson Davies, Summers dressed like a European priest, in cassock and cloak, and was “invariably accompanied on his afternoon walk either by a pallid youth dressed in black, who was supposed to be his secretary, or by a large black dog, but never by both!”

Carlo Ginzburg -- the son of the great Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg -- is a far more serious and trustworthy scholar, but no less thrilling to read. A deeply learned authority on late medieval and Renaissance culture, he specializes in microhistory, the attempt to illuminate the lives and beliefs of quite ordinary people. To do this, Ginzburg combines the techniques of a historian, cultural anthropologist, and folklorist. In The Cheese and the Worms -- perhaps his best known book -- he drew on the testimony of a literate tradesman named Menocchio, accused of heresy, to reveal “the cosmos of a 16th-century miller.” In The Night-Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Ginzburg analyzed the bizarre testimony of certain peasants from Friuli -- the so-called benandanti -- who informed the Church’s Inquisitors that on several nights of the year they were compelled to leave their bodies and, “invisibly, in spirit,” wage battles against evil witches to insure the fertility of the year’s crops. In Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, Ginzburg builds on these unsettling revelations to trace the half-hidden history of an ancient shamanistic cult in Renaissance Europe.

Ginzburg opens his book by wondering about “the extraordinary uniformity” in the accounts given of the witches’ Sabbath from the early 15th century to the end of the 17th:

Male and female witches met at night, generally in solitary places, in fields or on mountains. Sometimes, having anointed their bodies, they flew, arriving astride poles or broom sticks; sometimes they arrived on the backs of animals, or transformed into animals themselves. Those who came for the first time had to renounce the Christian faith, desecrate the sacrament and offer homage to the devil, who was present in human or (most often) animal or semi-animal form. There would follow banquets, dancing, sexual orgies. Before returning home, the female and male witches received evil ointments made from children’s fat and other ingredients.

Drawing largely on the confessions of people on trial for heresy, Ginzburg seeks to understand just “what the belief in witchcraft meant, not for the accusers and the judges, but for the accused.” His various paths of inquiry and the patterns he uncovers are carefully grounded in historical fact, even when some of his queer discoveries would seem right at home in J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough or Robert Graves’sThe White Goddess. We learn, for instance, that witches and werewolves are ancient and traditional enemies, engaging in a timeless war over the fertility of the fields. In their battles one or both sides are often commanded by a lame leader. This odd factoid eventually leads Ginzburg to examine, in a tour de force chapter, the symbolic meanings of lameness, limping, and various oddities involving the feet in so many of our great myths, from swollen-footed Oedipus and heel-vulnerable Achilles to the mono-slippered Cinderella. By the end of the book, Ginzburg will expand his canvas to cover religious mysticism in Siberia and Central Asia, the ritual use of psychedelic mushrooms, and the deep structure of the human mind.

But that’s at the end of Ecstasies. First it opens, in 1321, when France tried to exterminate all its lepers.

Why lepers?

Because, it was reported in one chronicle, “they had prepared poisons to kill the entire population.” The lepers supposedly planned to infect all the wells, rivers, and fountains, and to set themselves up as kings and princes over the land. Twenty-six years later, in 1347, the plague struck Europe and this time the Jews were blamed, with accusations closely linked to the incidence and spread of the disease. During this same period and after, the ancient image of the solitary sorcerer began to metamorphose into “a new witchcraft practised by groups of men and women” who met secretly as members of an actual cult. So, as Ginzburg writes, the targets of civic and religious persecution gradually shifted “from a relatively restricted social group (the lepers) . . . to a larger, but ethnically and religiously delimited group (the Jews), finally reaching a potentially boundless sect (male and female witches).” Ultimately, he conjectures that the emergence of the Witches’ Sabbath presupposes this “crisis of European society in the fourteenth century and the famines, plague, confinement or expulsion of marginal groups that accompanied it.” But there’s a lot more to the story than this.

In the second and longest section of Ecstasies, Ginzburg notes that testimonies of women on trial for witchcraft frequently allude to a “good lady,” often called Diana or Herodiana (i.e., Herod-Diana), or sometimes Holda. Just as the Greek Furies were apotropaically referred to as “The Kindly Ones,” so Italian peasants, under examination (or torture), would speak of their devotion to “the good lady” and to “the game of the good society.” Such phrases, notes Ginzburg, echo similar ones used by the Celts to describe the fairies, “the good people,” or “the good neighbors.” In an almost Lovecraftian phrase, some of the witchcraft testimonies even refer to “the women from outside.” In the end, Ginzburg concludes that the accounts of nocturnal meetings to do battle or to attend the Sabbath or to be part of a wild cohort or to honor “the good lady” all reveal the practitioners’ “capacity to enter into periodic ecstasies.” Fundamentally, he writes, European-style shamanism revolves around “the ecstatic journey of the living into the realm of the dead.” Certain women and a few men even appear to “relive, during their nocturnal swoons, myths that have reached them from the most remote places and periods.”

Ginzburg admits that much of his evidence depends on “semi-erased historical relationships,” as well as testimony taken from trials for heresy and doubtless skewed by the Inquisitors’ own convictions. But his cross-cultural comparisons soon lead him to explore more fully the practices of Central Asian shamans -- those priest-like mystics, who, through various means, including drugs, commune with the spirit world. “In communities of nomadic shepherds,” he sums up, “the shamans fall into ecstasy in order to procure reindeer. In agricultural communities their colleagues do the same to procure -- depending on climate and latitude -- rye, wheat, grapes.”

To nail down the interconnectedness of these groups and their practices, Ginzburg zeroes in on one strange international motif: the hobbled gait or the injured feet of so many gods and would-be heroes. What explains, he asks, the odd “triple connection between fated child, peculiarities linked with limping, and the world of the dead”? Some ethnographic mythologists deduce that an uneven gait metaphorically implies the passage of the seasons (i.e. day and night are never in balance, with one always growing shorter or longer). Similarly, it’s thought that the wearing of a single sandal -- the habit of various ancient armies and mythic heroes -- indicates a desire to stay intimately connected to the earth. Also related to this podiatrical theme are the widespread legends about “half” men with one eye, one arm, and one leg.

What is the etiology for all these aching or injured or missing feet? “From Africa to Siberia . . . the half-man -- like the lame, the one-sandalled, and so on -- appears to be an intermediary figure between the world of the living and that of the dead or the spirits.” Why? Because “anyone who goes to or returns from the nether world -- man, animal, or a mixture of the two -- is marked by an asymmetry.”

From all that Ginzburg has unearthed, it’s clear that the dead haunt our imaginations and unconscious. Halloween masquerades are actually processions of the dead. The excessive drinking, eating and orgiastic patterns characteristic of the Sabbath nights reflect the traditional “unquenchable thirst of the dead.” Witches, werewolves and benandanti meet or do battle during those ghostly times, such as the period between Christmas Eve and Epiphany (January 6), when the dead are traditionally said to roam the earth.

The mutuality of the living and the dead also explains why, in primordial tradition, the bones of a sacrificed animal must never be broken and instead should be gathered together so that, like the god Osiris, the creature may be newly reborn. The meaning of this act to ancient hunters “seems clear: to establish communication between the visible and invisible, between the world of sense experience, governed by scarcity, and the world beyond the horizon, populated by animals. . . Every animal that appeared on the horizon was a resurrected animal.”

In the end, Ginzburg insists that the Sabbath and other shamanistic rites “work a common theme,” that of “going into the beyond, returning from the beyond. This elementary narrative nucleus has accompanied humanity for thousands of years. The countless variations introduced by utterly different societies . . . have not modified its basic structure.”

After all his researches Ginzburg formulates two conclusions: in the first, “evidence originating from one end of Europe to the other, in the course of one thousand years, has led us to identify the features of a primarily female ecstatic religion, dominated by a nocturnal goddess with many names.” At the symbolic center of this cult, he adds, there lies the notion of a journey to and from the land of the dead. Yet why is such intercourse so potent and permanent an obsession? Ginzburg only offers a few speculative sentences in answer to this second question. The explanation, he says, is “possibly very simple,” and seems to be embedded in the deep structure of our minds. Human consciousness “participates” in both “the world of the living and of the dead, in the sphere of the visible and of the invisible.” The very act of communication, of storytelling, implies a bridge between these two states: “To narrate means to speak here and now with an authority that derives from having been (literally or metaphorically) there and then.” This sentence -- almost the very last in the book -- tantalizes by its starkness, then leaves the reader hanging. Perhaps it will serve as the germ for a cultural study of language and metaphor.

At times, Ecstasies can be demanding -- especially in its opening pages. But persist, and you will be rewarded with truly haunting stories and speculations. Above all, do not skip the extensive notes that accompany each chapter. Here even the most rationalistic reader may experience his or her own heady intellectual ecstasy, for Ginzburg refers to and argues with some of the most original and provocative thinkers in the humane sciences: Vladimir Propp, Rene Dumezil, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Norman Cohn, Ioan Couliano, Mircea Eliade, and many others. Not least, if you are a fan of two of our finest contemporary writers -- John Crowley and Elizabeth Hand -- you will discover in Ginzburg’s researches a good many of the occult ideas suffusing their lyrical visions of the fantastic and the uncanny.

Happy Halloween!

About the Columnist
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and several collections of essays. His most recent book is Classics for Pleasure.

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