peasantry, which was forcefully set into a ‘straightjacket’ by theology-influencedInquisitors.Ginzburg did not stop here. In a later book, he set to show how the case of benandantiwas not an isolated case, and that in fact there were many examples of the type of ‘witchcraft’ the Italian cult represented (8). Supported by the famous historian of religion Mircea Eliade, Ginzburg talked about similar ‘secret’ groups from Greece,Romania, Hungary, and Corsica (9). He then concluded that the beliefs and practicesthese groups extolled were of shamanistic origin. Shamanism had been thoroughlyanalysed in the classical work on the topic by Eliade (10). Ginzburg concluded thatthere was a structural similitude between shamanism and the benandanti and other groups. He considered that Scythians brought shamanistic beliefs from Asia intoEurope sometime around 1000 BC. He furthermore maintained that the biologicalstructure of human beings would make their religious experiences similar (11).Scholars were cautious, if generally impressed by Ginzburg’s theories (12, 13).Criticism centered on Ginzburg’s apparent failure to account for the history of witchcraft. Indeed, except for the benandanti case, he pays little attention to theindividual circumstances of the beliefs. Is it really that easy to extrapolate from the1600s benandanti to the 1900s’ recorded beliefs of Romanian calusari (horse-riders)?The similarities are indeed striking, but Ginzburg is not concerned with the way the‘shamanistic’ ideas he espouses translate into history.Still, Ginzburg’s argument about the ‘shamanistic’ elements of witchcraft iscompelling and provocative. On one hand, he opened a new discussion between the previously separate fields of folklore / mythology and history. Perhaps moreimportantly, it made us realize that European witchcraft was at least to some extent areality, rather than a myth, and that peasantry did continue to practice fertility ritualsfar into the 1700s. In fact, recent scholarship has become interested in the fact that,contrary to belief, ‘witchcraft’ did not die in the witchhunts, and that in fact itsurvived beyond the witch persecutions (14). In a way, Ginzburg’s work opened our eyes to the enduring power of popular culture.
(1) Lea, H. C. (1888).
History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages
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Religion, The Reformation, and Social Change
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Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England
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Religion and the Decline of Magic
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The Witch-Cult in Western Europe
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A Razor for a Goat: A Discussion of Certain Problems in the History of Witchcraft and Diabolism
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The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in theSixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries