Witchcraft and Deep Time-A Debate at Harvard

Article excerpt


Stephen Mitchell

Nocturnal histories: witchcraft and the shamanic legacy of pre-Christian Europe took the form of a series of brief introductory presentations followed by lengthy open discussions at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, over four days in August 2009. The academic fields represented were intentionally diverse, and included archaeology, religion, anthropology, literature, history and folklore. Our discussions of witchcraft and shamanism, set against the backdrop of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Carlo Ginzburg's 1989 Storia notturna (translated as Ecstasies: deciphering the witches' Sabbath), made clear that although there are important areas of convergence and mutual learning, our knowledge of each other's disciplines and methodologies were not entirely equal. The familiar divisions between those whose methods are largely empirical and those whose work tends to be principally analytic and interpretive did, of course, begin to emerge, but one point that struck me was the degree to which the archaeologists were not merely familiar with textual sources, but had also often trained in philology and other relevant disciplines. Non-archaeologists, although willing to use archaeological findings, were reluctant, it seemed, to tread as readily across this disciplinary boundary. Overcoming the still palpable intellectual atomism brought about by the prejudices (and abuses) of earlier generations no doubt has a long way to go, but there was a willingness, eagerness even, among our group to push harder at lowering those walls, while at the same time, respecting the very real differences that exist between separate academic disciplines.

Our conversations encompassed everything from the lessons of regional episodes to grand synthesising schemes. With such a diversity of perspectives, backgrounds and specialisations, it would presumably be unrealistic to hope that there should have been many moments of consensus, yet I sensed that two such areas did precipitate out of our discussions, one touching on methodology, the other on a possible venue for future synergy. In the first instance, the subtext of the most interesting moments for me was that, whether our primary 'texts' consist of charms or potsherds, understanding our mission as one of recontextualising 'lived lives' should be paramount. Our principal goal, whatever our academic allegiance, should be to understand cultural monuments within reconstructable performance contexts.

The second point that emerged was that from among the many periods and places represented by the specialists at the meeting, the situation in medieval Scandinavia, due to the unusual nature and richness of its textual and other sources of information, its geographical location and its connections to adjacent cultures, represents a unique case, a tradition-rich area that may hold unparalleled promise for future interdisciplinary efforts.

Interdisciplinarity and emotion

Neil Price

Two aspects of the seminar have stayed with me--firstly the fruitfulness of its format, and secondly (more obviously perhaps) the synergies generated in discussion. Before the start, both Steve and I were aware that the entire seminar was a risk and we had mild concerns as to how exactly the coming days would play out. What if no-one said anything? What if we were all reduced to silence after the first day, or what if the talks instead turned unconstructive? The discussions in the event moved rapidly through a phase of establishing disciplinary fault lines, and then transcending them to seek common ground with a general sense of surprise at how gentle the process seemed to be. Importantly, I think, the exchanges also embraced a lot of humour.

For me as co-organiser, with an obvious eye on a functioning debate, the most rewarding moments were those that I had not expected. Some random phrases from my notes: the power of names; the importance of maintained anomaly; the problem of ventriloquism; what happens when rituals are unfinished; triggers to spiritual fluorescence; trauma as memory and the curation of stress; the reactivation of latent knowledge; ritual as the constitution of ideas; that vernacular traditions can remember rightly even when they distort; the force of the suppressed, and released, voice; the dead as active subjects in all cultures but our own; industries dedicated to the dead; in ancient perception, spirituality should not be limited to humans. …