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The Witches’ Sabbath

In response to:

Witch Hunting from the June 13, 1991 issue

To the Editors:

According to Robert Bartlett, the reviewer of my book Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, I “most emphatically” claimed that there were “real secret rituals in the peasant world of the past” and “women and men…[who] actually assemble[d] in ecstatic nocturnal gatherings” (italics mine). In my book I said on the contrary that “virtually none of the descriptions of the Sabbath furnished any proof” of actual rituals (Ecstasies, p. 9); I also concluded that those “rituals elude us” (p. 307). According to my reviewer, “[my] psychology flirts with Jungianism.” My discussion of the notion of “archetypes” (pp. 240–242) is inspired on the contrary by an explicit rejection of Jung’s approach. I never spoke of cultural diffusion in terms of “racial groups.” I never claimed that the bust of the so-called “Dama de Elche” is “prehistoric” (as Bartlett writes): “it probably belongs [as the caption in my book reads] to the fourth or fifth century BC.” I suggested a new and detailed interpretation of the medieval origins of the witches’ sabbath stereotype (pp. 33–86) which Bartlett, a medievalist, did not even mention. And so forth.

I will refrain from discussing the theoretical implications of my book, which Bartlett (I think) either missed or grossly misinterpreted. He says that my book is “dull to read.” A perfectly legitimate response, of course. Having read his review, however, I wonder whether that alleged dullness prevented him from throwing on Ecstasies a more than cursory look.

Carlo Ginzburg
Los Angeles, California

Robert Bartlett replies:

Contrary to the implication of the final sentence of Mr. Ginzburg’s letter, my perception of Ecstasies as “dull” was based on a close reading of the book. The existence of “real secret rituals” did actually seem to me common ground between author and reviewer. Otherwise it is hard to make sense of the author’s claim to have himself discovered “an agrarian cult of an ecstatic character” (p. 9) or to have “collected” “rituals” (pp. 15 ff.). My choice of the words “flirt[ing] with Jungianism” was intended to convey that the explicit disavowal of Jung in the book did not prevent the author believing that myths act “at a supra-individual level” (p. 23) and that their “trans-cultural diffusion” has “psychological roots” in an “elementary perception of the human species” (p. 241). To reformulate “the notion of the archetype” by characterizing it as a kind of categorizing based on experience of the body (p. 242) seems more like an eccentric, slightly Lévi-Straussian twist to Jung’s thought than a serious alternative to it. In Ecstasies “the presence of a Slavic component in the Friuli’s ethnic background and culture” is adduced to illuminate common elements in eastern European and Friulian folklore (p. 160) and supposed similarities between sixth-century accounts of Bretons and seventeenth-century reports from northeastern Italy are explained by “the presence of a Celtic substratum…in Britanny and Friuli” (p. 107). It is hard to see why this cannot be described as “cultural diffusion in terms of racial groups.” If Mr. Ginzburg is unhappy to see fifth-century BC Spain characterized as “prehistoric,” he should reveal the written sources for that period which would make the label inappropriate.

It would indeed have been possible to devote the entire review to criticism of the author’s thesis on the medieval origins of the sabbath stereotype, but I chose to address what I considered one of the primary “theoretical implications” of the book—the locus of myth—since this is where I saw its deepest intellectual failing.

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