12 June 2016


Alexandra Tātāran. Contemporary Life and Witchcraft: Magic, Divination and Religious Ritual in Europe. ibidem-Verlag, Stuttgart. 2016.

Discussion of ‘contemporary witchcraft’ usual means Wicca or similar practices in Britain, Europe and North America, or older beliefs in South American, sub-Saharan Africa and traditional tribal societies. However, this book makes it clear that traditional European witchcraft is surviving in parts of Europe, and the author looks at contemporary witchcraft beliefs and practices in her home country of Romania.
It would be easy to assume that such beliefs must be confined to the remoter and more ‘primitive’ parts of the country, and are rapidly dying out with the spread of education and mass media. But to the contrary, witchcraft belief is not only well established in urban areas, but has been reinforced by social and political pressures in the country over the past fifty years or more.

Tātāran suggests that during the Communist era, especially as the Ceausescu regime’s own version of Juche - internal self sufficiency – was imposed, the increasing scarcities of food and fuel and other consumer goods, along with the forced urbanisation of rural populations, led to a society where hidden links with government officials, with police, with workers on collective farms, or operators in the black market with access to hard currency, became an essential part of day to day survival. The idea spread that if one person had a piece of good fortune, it could only be at the expense of someone else, and that any setback in life was the result of malign action by others – the basis behind much witchcraft belief – was reinforced in everyday life.

Much of Tātāran’s research was conducted through fieldwork, largely in northern Transylvania where she interviews individuals who claimed to have been either the victim of witchcraft attacks or were influential in combating them on behalf of others. She found four main sets of circumstances which were interpreted as being witchcraft attacks: delay of marriage; unhappy marriage or problematic love relationship; inexplicable illness, ‘mal de vivre’; and what she terms ‘mana’ and ‘fertility transfer’. ‘Mana’ is largely concerned with crop failures or illnesses of animals, and with the increased urbanisation of the region was seldom mentioned during her research. The other three elements were all very much alive.

Again, contrary to the conventional view of the nature of European witchcraft survivals, these concerns were not limited to an uneducated rural class. Many of the people Tātāran spoke to were well-educated, working in responsible jobs, in offices, or as teachers and local officials. Some symptoms of witchcraft attacks are described in a number of interviews, which the author describes. Typical is the account of a 63-year-old woman who described how her son-in-law’s mother ensured, through witchcraft, that there was always a row or fight in her house at Christmas and Easter, giving the family a bad reputation with their neighbours. This was apparently so that the woman’s son could act as “master of the house”. The rows only stopped after the death of the suspected culprit. In another account a husband’s first wife was accused of promoting marital disharmony, even though at the time she was living in Italy and was happily re-married herself.

However, witchcraft curses can be removed, and in Romania the agency for this is mainly the Orthodox Church. Post-Communist Romania is a remarkably religious society, surveys indicate that 95% of the population believe in God; nearly three-quarters pray at least once a week, and over half attend mass at least once a month. Although there is still a tradition of lay ‘unwitchers’, this largely died out in the twentieth century; and after the fall of Communism, with no traditional remedies in place, the Church resumed the role it had in earlier centuries. A person believing themselves to be bewitched will often be referred to an Orthodox Priest by someone who themselves have a local reputation and are spoken of as “someone who knows about those things”.

The priest’s ‘unwitching’ process will include traditional religious practices such as the use of holy water, saying mass, and having the supposed victim read lengthy devotional works. The priest will sometimes ask a question on behalf of the victim and then interpret a randomly selected Biblical text to provide an answer to it. This procedure may continue for a month or more before the victim is considered ‘unwitched’.

Tātāran notes that in the other two post-Communist Orthodox societies, Russia and Bulgaria, the Church dissociates itself from this activity, and in those countries ‘unwitching’ is largely done through a range of occult, psychic and magical practitioners who publicly advertise their services – something almost unknown in Romania.

This is a book which upturns some conventional ideas on modern witchcraft, and the first hand accounts give a picture of a society in a state of transition. However, it suffers from an all too common complaint – an excess of academic jargon. The author is Romanian, the book is published in Germany, and no indication is given of a translator, so perhaps the author was writing in what is her second language and was not comfortable using a more vernacular style. Some judicial editing, and the reduction by about 99% in the use of the word ‘discourse’, would make this very interesting book a lot more readable. – John Rimmer.

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