Ben Trafford reviews Ecstasies: Deciphering The Witches’ Sabbath by Carlo Ginzburg in the Bkwyrm archive.

The debate has raged in the occult community for the last forty years or so, and longer in the anthropological community: were the witches in Europe merely the victims of Christian hysteria, or were they the secret keepers of preChristian beliefs? Margaret Murray’s work on this topic has been largely debunked, as has Robert Graves. The Gardnerian history is still a hot topic, and of course, anyone who claims to have maintained some hereditary tradition is usually scoffed at, rightly. But Ginzburg’s work lets us look at the whole question in a new light. Like most good scholars, he’s meticulously unearthed evidence to show that the polarized views are, as usual, wrong.

Ginzburg maintains, and provides powerful evidence, to say that there were remnants of preChristian practices. He does agree that many of those who suffered under the witch trials were wrongly accused Christian folk, and he doesn’t support the idea of a knowing, secret priesthood who maintained unaltered preChristian belief systems. What he posits is far more interesting, and viable. He puts forth that the remnants of the pagan faiths were maintained in an evolving form by the peasantry, and grew to suit their needs. Like the Irish Catholic who still leaves milk out for the wee folk, these people believed themselves to be Christian, but practiced some rituals that certainly wouldn’t have been condoned in a church!

A brilliant piece of work, and well worth reading. The translation from the original Italian is quite good, too. I’ve read both, and heartily recommend either.

A final note: Ginzburg’s focus is almost exclusively continental Europe. He doesn’t touch on the British Isles at all.

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