The Future of History

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

A Deed Without a Name

Growing up in the 70s and 80s with a curiosity about the supernatural, I was frequently disappointed.  There was, for example, one book I remember in my school library (never quite figured out what it was doing there) which took a scattergun approach to the subject.  A page or two on every aspect of the "occult", very little of which made any sense at all.

It took me many years to realise that what we call the Supernatural is, in fact, the Natural (just as the "paranormal" is actually the "normal").

What I mean by that is this: the world we inhabit is infinitely more interesting - and stranger - than we care to admit.

Do miracles happen?  Yes, all the time.  Just look around you.  Creatures are born, plants grow, wounds heal, every now and then there's a rainbow ... and while science can explain what's going on (most of the time), it still can't get to the fundamentals.  It can tells us how something happens.  It can't really tell us why it happens.

And then there are the things that science just won't go anywhere near.  These are the things which tend to get classed as "Supernatural" (or "paranormal").  But that classification is false.  It implies that the "natural" is what can be measured, dissected, categorised.  Anything else is, by definition, "supernatural" - and, as far as science is concerned, it doesn't exist.

In reality, though, the "Supernatural" is pretty much everything that our official culture wants to pretend doesn't happen.  Over time, we have gone through a situation in which certain forms of supernatural activity were tentatively accepted (by the Church) to one in which nothing of a supernatural nature is tolerated (by science).  This does not mean, however, that the supernatural has gone away.  It can't.  Because it's only natural.

Now, even I was quite taken aback when Moon Books sent me a copy of Lee Morgan's A Deed Without a Name for me to read.  Why?  Because the book ventures into what I would consider one of the most problematic areas of occultism.

The subtitle gives the game away: "Unearthing the Legacy of Traditional Witchcraft".  A Deed Without a Name makes no attempt to portray witchcraft (ancient or modern) as fluffy, in a New Age sort of way.  Rather, it goes straight to the heart of everything we were raised to fear and distrust about witches.

There has long been a debate about the accounts of witchcraft given in the many trials of witches which took place in the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods.  To what extent did the inquisitors invent examples of scandalous behaviour and impose their own ideas of witchcraft onto their victims?  Or, if you prefer, were the infamous witchcraft trials of ages past really informed more by Christian prejudice and propaganda than by anything that genuine witches might have done?

Lee Morgan takes the position that the tales told by the inquisitors - and the witches they tortured and killed - might well have been true.  It's a startling angle.  If you've assumed that the witchcraft frenzy which swept through Europe around the time of the Reformation was a kind of wildly deluded displacement activity, a sort of massive outbreak of paranoid delusion and insanity, then it comes as a shock to be told that the witchfinders weren't really making anything up.

But Morgan's argument makes sense, for the simple reason that much of what the medieval witches were accused of falls within the scope of shamanistic practice.

Shamanism is probably the oldest form of religious activity in the world.  Every culture had its shamans.  They were the healers, the seekers, the walkers between worlds.  They interacted with their environment (both in its natural and supernatural forms), usually for the good of their communities.  However, as Lee Morgan makes clear, the spiritual realm is not all sweetness and light: it has its negative, as well as its positive, aspects (indeed, such definitions are wildly subjective - best to think of them as the dark and light sides of the same thing).  There were good witches and bad witches, the benandanti and the malandanti; those who worked for the community against the malevolent forces of the Otherworld and those who served those malevolent forces (both helping to preserve a form of balance, with the latter especially reminding the living community of its debts and responsibilities to the unseen forces and the dead).

Morgan takes us through various aspects of traditional witchcraft and makes a point of preventing the reader from retreating into the modernist "oh those poor women" approach to the witches of yesteryear.  She makes it clear that many of the witches - male and female - who were hanged and burned were not accused of things they had not done.  Rather, it was simply the fact that their (Christian) inquisitors did not understand the workings of traditional shamanism which created a rather skewed picture of what the witches were actually up to.  Did the witches have intercourse with the Devil?  In a sense, yes - because spiritual forces did enter them, passing on their fiery power and exchanging vital energies.  And who has never dreamed of having sexual intercourse with a stranger, a dream lover?  Such things are only natural - but, being beyond the vision and the tolerance of the churchmen, they were deemed supernatural, and therefore worthy of damnation.

Overall, then, Morgan reclaims the traditions of witchcraft from the bloody hands of the Christian inquisitors (and, by extension, from the disinfected hands of the laboratory scientist).  It might be difficult for the reader to confront the possibility that werewolves and vampires, the Revenant and the Leannan Sidhe, might actually exist.  We have adopted a strictly either-or position in recent years: either such entities are real (as certain religious fundamentalists might aver) or they are mere fantasies (as the materialist of today would suppose).  Lee Morgan indicates that neither position is strictly accurate.  The fundamentalists and the materialists bring their own prejudices and delusions to the argument.  But if we go back, to the universal experience of the shaman, we find that such entities are very much out there, demanding recognition and respect.  They are part of our world, and if we refuse to acknowledge and interact with them (or insist on damning them out of hand), then we are the fools.

The book offers much in the way of ritual activity designed to help the novice witch discover who or what their "fetch-beast" is (the animal soul-guide of the shaman), how to communicate with the demon lover, how to conduct an exorcism, how to produce healing.  On a psychological level, many of these exercises make sense - "Donning the Mask", for example, is really just a case of confronting and assimilating the Shadow, as C.G. Jung called it, which is an essential part of the individuation process.  There is, of course, no requirement that every reader attempt necromancy - and arguably every reason to recommend that they don't - but that is beside the point.  What Morgan has done here is to open a window on an ancient world, a window which had seemingly been slammed shut by intolerant propagandists of the past, but one which needs must be open if we are to recognise and acknowledge the role of the supernatural in our lives.

More importantly, perhaps, she has rescued the witch of old from both ideological extremes - that of the Church and that of the scientific materialist.  For ancient societies knew perfectly well that our world was at least as spiritual as it was material, and probably a great deal more of the former than the latter.  Today, we know only how to relate to the material side of existence (and we're not very good at that).  We have been taught to ignore and forget about the spiritual, and if we do allow it into our consciousness at all, it is on the basis that it's all rather lovely in an escapist sort of way.

Morgan reminds us that the Other side isn't entirely lovely, that demons do exist, and that some of us will always be called upon to interact with these unseen forces, some to help and some to harm.  In short, the witches of yesteryear have been misunderstood in two different ways - portrayed as the slaves of Satan by a bigoted Church and dismissed as fantastists or victims by modern commentators.  But they were none of these things.  They were our own homegrown shamans, the inheritors of traditions and practices that go back to the very mists of our earliest history.

They flew, as all shamans do.  They copulated with spirits in human, daimonic and animal form, as shamans often do.  They healed and they blighted, blessed and cursed, as shamans the world over have done.  They were part of the natural equilibrium that we upset about 2,000 years ago and have failed to reinstate ever since.  And they had much to teach us about our world, both in its natural and supernatural guises.

A fascinating book, then.  And a brave addition to the growing corpus of material which looks at our spiritual past in a way that is sensitive and sensible.

They were not witches in pointy hats with warts on their noses.  They were native priests and priestesses, herbalists and exorcists, who knew how to interact with our world in ways that we have forgotten.

And if we are to rescue our precious world from the ravages of science and religion, we must listen to their voices again and prepare to greet the darkness - before it overwhelms us completely.

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