00.02.05, Pocs, Between the Living and the Dead

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David Lederer

The Medieval Review baj9928.0002.005


Pocs, Eva. Translated by Szilvia Redey and Michael Webb. Between the Living and the Dead: A Perspective on Witches and Seers in the Early Modern Age. Budapest:Ce ntral European University Press, distributed by Cornell University Press Services, 1999. Pp. vii, 186. ISBN: 9-639-11619-X.

Reviewed by:

David Lederer
National University of Ireland

Eva Pocs has a deserved reputation as an important scholar of folk beliefs in East Central Europe. She is well-known for her long-standing collaboration with a group of Hungarian historians working on witch trials in the region (among them Gabor Klaniczay, Director of the Collegium Budapest, the historian/folklorist Idilko Kristoff, the social historian Peter Toth and Katalin Benedek), not to mention the international, German-based "Interdisciplinary Working Circle of Witchcraft Studies" (Behringer, Lorenz, et. al.). This book treads a thin line between history and ethnology in its attempt to trace patterns of ecstatic shamanism in everyday practice by differentiating between popular tradition and what is viewed as an alien intellectualized culture of demonology. Not surprisingly, it draws heavily upon the theories (not to mention the literary style) of Carlo Ginzburg concerning supernatural belief systems throughout Europe as an archaic formation. As such, it is a major contribution to English language literature on witchcraft and popular culture in early modern Hungary. The foundation of evidence is taken from folklorists, witchcraft studies and several thousand pages of records from Hungarian witch trials. Most of the latter form of documentary evidence is taken from eighteenth-century Hungary trials after the period of Turkish occupation, although there are some examples from the seventeenth century and a few from the sixteenth.

At the onset, we are introduced to the ethnographic technical jargon employed throughout the study, as well as its historiographic lineage, including the works of Evans- Pritchard, Larner, Macfarlane, Kieckhefer, and perhaps most importantly recent works on shamanism, including Ginzburg's benandante and Behringer's Shaman of Oberstdorf, Chonrad Stoeckhlin. The most important analytic categories are discussed briefly--the types A, B and C witchcraft established by the author in a previous study of the minutes of seventy- four trials conducted in Sopron County from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Type A represents the "neighborhood witch" identified with social conflicts, type B the "magical" or "sorcerer" witch, the healers, seers, and other everyday practitioners of beneficent magic in local communities, and type C the "supernatural" witches involved in night battles between this world and the denizens of the next world. The not-so-subtle and matter-of-fact assumption here is that "witches" (broadly speaking, people who engaged in preternatural activities) did exist, indeed they were a common element of local culture in East Central Europe. However, as the ensuing chapters demonstrate, this is more than a parody of Murrayesque theory, for Pocs provides yet more direct evidence of their actual activities in the village setting from their own confessions and the testimony of witnesses.

Chapter one commences with a discussion of the limitations of the sources owing to their manufacture within the persecutory mechanisms of law courts controlled by the demonological ideology of witch-hunting. Nonetheless, Pocs notes that there were many commonalties between popular beliefs and the so- called cumulative concept of witchcraft, including a belief in nocturnal gatherings--although the functions of the sabbath and popular gatherings were certainly different. Pocs adamantly dismisses black magicians as pure fiction and announces her intent to limit herself to the "authentic mediatory techniques and the genuinely operational seers and sorcerers of village communities". (23) The subsequent chapter illustrates their mediatory role in communications between the communities of the living and the dead, especially the impersonal dead, that is the troops of souls who visited the living between Christmas and Epiphany. In their role as mediators, all witches, sorcerers and seers maintained double images (such the mora and werewolves), enabling these interlocutors to shape change and be in two places simultaneously. Hungarian witches had doubles who could be either living creatures (often taking the form of animals, such as cats, dogs or frogs) or dead souls. These were not familiars in the strictest sense, but the Hungarian taltos who journeyed to the other world in demonic variants. The belief in doubles is demonstrated convincingly from the trial records, where accusations appear against the double, but not the person in question. Chapter three raises one of the most important rhetorical issues of the study again; was there a positive aspect to the mora witch or, similarly, is the image of the black witch purely fictional? In answer, the examples of the triple character of the lideric and aspects of fairy witches and demons of the night are raised to demonstrate the inherent demonic component of mediation with the dead without necessitating maleficient magic. This problem of the ambivalent nature of the witch is central to the rest of the book.

Maleficient, evil witches were clearly a part of the Hungarian belief system. However, it should be noted that no person who admitted to engaging in magical activities immediately identified themselves with evil deeds and that many "curses" acted as little more than an "invitation" to gatherings of the dead. Other types included "tormenting", connected to the sexual characteristics of the mora creatures (which were also incubus demons) or fate women who tortured mothers in labor or attempted to steal new-born infants or replace them with doppelgangers. Incidents of weather magic, common in Alpine regions, or the damage of livestock or theft of milk were significantly rare. Those accused of offenses against entire communities were generally identified as "foreign witches", i.e. outsiders. In her explication of the witches' sabbath (perhaps the best chapter of the book), Pocs enters into the alternate world of the sabbath with its parallelism of both metaphysical soul travel and physical experience for witches and their victims. Again, she emphasizes that the gathering was no mere invention of demonologists, but instead represented an integral part of an archaic tradition which may have taken on elements of Christian culture. The sections on soul journeys and flight illustrate that the devil was alien to the original gathering, where witches and the persons they abducted all assumed a double existence, becoming demons, werewolves, mora, etc.. Although there were secret societies and rituals of initiation, again, these lacked a satanic component. The participants engaged in merriments and battles against the opponents of the living community, much like Ginzburg's benandante.

Healing played a central role in witch beliefs and, citing the work of Willem de Blecourt, Pocs recognizes its significance as a serious part of village life. Indeed, this is an area where much work remains to be done, and Pocs has made an important contribution to our knowledge about "unofficial" healers. She also introduces this aspect of the belief system to underscore the ambivalent role of the witch, who mediates with the dead to secure the continued health of the living. Most of the illustrations in the book are standard fare (Guazzo, Molitor, etc.), but one stunning iconographic representation of the tradition of the witch-healer is provided from a Bulgarian fresco. In fact, Pocs reveals that the bulk of her documentation refers to impediments of healing. The final chapter is an extended treatment of the communication techniques of seers and magicians in their battle against witchcraft and evil in the village community.

This book delivers yet another graphic piece of evidence to corroborate theories on the centrality of ecstatic visions, shamanism and popular magic in the everyday life of the vast majority of Europeans in the early modern age. Perhaps the suggestion that the Hungarian example supports a pan-European theory about the archaic nature of these beliefs is still open to debate, but this is surely a fine general treatment of regional beliefs. Pocs is certainly cautious to note that the tangled web of origins has yet to be unraveled in Hungary, where pre-Christian Turkic/Finno-Ugric traditions and Christian elements mixed freely; might one suggest the possibility of Ottoman influences as well, without snubbing nationalist pride? In any case, Pocs has surely introduced us to the terminology of Hungarian witch beliefs, though one wonders whether the folklorist's desire for clear cut definitions actually reflects contemporary usage. This leads to the obvious question of the English translation, which suffers from occasionally awkward central European word syntax, some Germanic multi-syllabic complications and a Slavic penchant for adjectival repetitiveness. On the other hand, one should never look a gift horse in the mouth and we can be thankful to George Saros and the efforts of the Central European University Press for bringing sorely needed and significant new findings on Hungary to an English audience. Pocs' contribution to the debate on witchcraft and popular beliefs certainly meets these criteria and should be well received.

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David Lederer

National University of Ireland