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Reviewed by:
  • Streghe, Sciamani, Visionari. In margine a Storia notturna di Carlo Ginzburg ed. by Cora Presezzi
  • Fabrizio Conti

Carlo Ginzburg, Storia notturna, the benandanti, shamanism, history of Christianity, Jewish studies, the Antichrist, Simon Magus, Nicholas of Cusa, Gershom Scholem, Sabbath

cora presezzi, ed. Streghe, Sciamani, Visionari. In margine a Storia notturna di Carlo Ginzburg. Rome: Viella, 2019, Pp. 464.

Few books have prompted such a great deal of scholarly debate in the domain of witchcraft studies as Carlo Ginzburg's Storia notturna (1989) (English translation, as Ecstasies, 1991), inviting possibly as many questions and doubts as it aimed to answer. Particular scrutiny has been paid to Ginzburg's use of the morphological approach in identifying, unveiling, and interpreting that "interminable saga of intricate cultural exchanges […] which seeks to justify a series of formal resemblances in historical terms" (Ecstasies, 214), in other words the analysis of the diffusion—in a wide Eurasian conjectural perspective—of ecstatic cults in an attempt to reconstruct the folkloric roots of the witches' sabbath.

Streghe, sciamani, visionari: In margine a storia notturna di Carlo Ginzburg, edited by Cora Presezzi, is an important, rich contribution to the long-lasting debate growing in the wake of Ginzburg's theses. The fifteen chapters gathered in the volume, including the editor's insightful introduction, are part of what Presezzi describes as a "potentially unlimited lattice of readings and writings of which Storia notturna is at the same time the center and a landmark internal to broader trajectories" (39–40). Breadth—paired with depth—is one of several traits characterizing the chapters of this volume, which has stemmed from a series of seminars on Ginzburg's career organized by Gaetano Lettieri at Sapienza University of Rome, with the two seminars of 2014 and 2015 both focusing on Storia notturna.

As a perfect starting point, the volume opens with Ginzburg's "Viaggiare in spirito, dal Friuli alla Siberia". This is the Italian translation of an essay originally published in English in 2016 (as "Travelling in Spirit: From Friuli to Siberia"), in which Ginzburg explains how he came to identify analogies between the benandanti and the shamans, and how this topic would later inspire his book Storia notturna. The ecstatic road leading from Friuli to Siberia took shape through the author's attentive focus on the deviation between the categories of the observer and those of the actor, in other words, the inquisitor and the confessant. Ginzburg sees the observers' and the actors' points of view—or in Kenneth Pike's words the etic and the emic levels of analysis—as working in a dialogical way: this is, the author claims, the same two-way, mutual type of exchange characterizing the work of the historian and that of the anthropologist. Ginzburg describes a trajectory of readings that opened the way to his identification of "a deep stratum of shamanistic type of beliefs" whose convergence with "an aggressive stereotype, centered on conspiracy" (58) gave rise to the image of the witches' sabbath. Thus, from Ernesto de Martino's Il mondo magico (1948) with its theory of the "loss of presence," to [End Page 427] Sergei Shirokogoroff's The Psychomental Complex of the Tungus (1935) and Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale (1928), "the attempt to weave two different perspectives together, the morphological and the historical" (59), became one of Ginzburg's most characteristic—and debated—traits in trying to unravel the complicated plot behind the witches' sabbath.

Gaetano Lettieri offers an intriguing new approach for reading and, especially, integrating, Storia notturna. In his contribution to the volume, Lettieri identifies an avenue of research completely dismissed by Ginzburg, or more precisely, one that the author of Storia notturna clearly decided to neglect: the role of the Bible. Through an attentive analysis of the Book of Joel, Isaiah 34, and Revelation 17 and 18, Lettieri recognizes a substratum of traditions potentially bridging the gap between the mentality of the persecutors and that of the victims. The apocalyptic and messianic Judeo-Christian tradition, with its images of ecstasies, monstrous figures, and supernatural battles, could well have informed the shaping of the apparently innocent, shamanistic-folkloric "white sabbath" described by the accused as well as...


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