Shamanism and Witchcraft
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Shamanism and Witchcraft

As one of the first historians to have initiated discussion of the relationship between shamanism and witchcraft twenty-three years ago,1 let me start my contribution to the present enquiry with a brief outline of the intellectual context in which the idea of the comparison of these two sets of beliefs emerged and come only subsequently to the issue this approach might represent today or in the future.

Around 1980 both historical/anthropological research on witchcraft and ethnographic/anthropological enquiries on shamanism represented a burgeoning field of scholarly discussion and research. As to the former, among many other inspiring new approaches (such as the “sociology of accusation” proposed by Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane,2 the problem of the distinction of a “popular” layer of witchcraft beliefs from the learned concepts of the diabolic witches’ sabbath discussed by Norman Cohn and Richard Kieckhefer,3 or the question of gender addressed in a new way by Christina Larner4) Carlo Ginzburg’s discovery [End Page 214] of documents pertaining to the benandanti directed the attention of researchers to the problem of how a number of archaic sorcerer-types got caught in the web of witchcraft persecutions, and how the archaic beliefs related to them made their imprint on the evolution of learned concepts of witchcraft.5 This was the starting point for the discussion of the historical relationship between witchcraft and shamanism: the bold suggestion by Carlo Ginzburg, who perspicaciously observed that the traits of the benandanti (being born in a caul, undergoing initiation in dreams, participating in night battles during soul-journeys while their bodies lay at home in trance, communicating with the dead, etc.) “richiama immediatamente i culti dei sciamani.”6

This was also the period when studies on shamanism became livelier as well. Following the grand synthetic effort of Mircea Eliade in Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (published in French in 1951 and translated into English in 1964),7 Ian Lewis reopened the theoretical-typological enquiry on shamanism and possession in 1971.8 Anthropological fieldwork among the different peoples in Siberia was renewed by Vilmos Diószegi, Mihály Hoppál, and their Hungarian colleagues,9 the circle of comparative examinations was very much broadened by the input of Scandinavian scholars such as Ǻke Hultkrantz, Lauri Honko, and Anna-Lena Siikala,10 and general interest about these topics was stirred up by the controversial works of Carlos Castaneda11 [End Page 215] and the neo-shaman movement initiated by Michael Harner.12 This was the context in which an ambitious international conference organized in 1983 by Mihály Hoppál in Sárospatak (Hungary) attempted no less than a reassessment of all these recent comparative enquiries on Eurasian shamanism in a broader anthropological, historical, psychological, and linguistic framework.13

This is how I came to this theme, and analyzed for this conference the striking similarities between the Friulan benandanti and the Hungarian táltos, both their shamanistic traits and their involvement in witchcraft persecutions. The historical figure of the táltos, maybe the most authentic European descendant of Siberian shamanism, is known partly from nineteenth-and twentieth-century ethnographic and folkloric research and partly from the historic documentation of Hungarian witch trials.14 Like the benandanti, they are distinguished by a special sign at birth (they are born with teeth or surplus bones), they have initiatory visions as adolescents, and they fight the enemies of their community by going on a soul-journey (and, more like Siberian shamans, taking the form of an animal, a horse or a bull) while their bodies lie in trance. The comparison of the táltos and the benandanti prompted me to situate this pair in a network of similar positive or ambivalent sorcerer figures in East-Central and South-Eastern Europe, documented since early modern times, such as the Croatian kresnik or the Serbian zduhač.15 In my interpretation of these figures I also tried to take into consideration the writings of Roman Jakobson and Marc Szeftel on Slavic werewolf beliefs, which they considered a version of shamanism, similarly to the startling case of the Livonian werewolf Thiess fighting against witches for fertility described by...