Monday, August 30, 2010

Whitewashing History.

This was going to be a review of Raven Grimassi's "Italian Witchcraft", but as I read through the book I came across something so enraging that I had to stop and vent my vitriol.

Conclusions Reached.

"It is interesting to note that Jan Ziarnko, in 1612, produced an engraving for the work Tableau de l' inconstance. In this engraving he displays a horned entity sitting upon a throne. To it's right sits a woman who is labeled in the text as the Queen of the Sabbath. Kneeling before them are worshipers who are presenting a small child. All about, people are involved in dancing and feasting. The fact that people kneel to the throned individuals addresses the issue of worship. The importance of this image is that it shows a male and female entity overseeing the sabbath. In the picture, we note that they do not participate as would a High Priest or High Priestess. The Sabbath is being performed FOR them. This addresses the issue of Deity. Are we seeing Befana and Befano before they were dethroned by the Christian Church."
- Raven Grimassi Italian Witchcraft, pages 62/63.

... which is all well and good, except...

Take a moment to examine the image. In the image we see, everything Grimassi attributed to it seems plausible. Unfortunately, this is an exceptionally small section of a far larger image. In a rather small size it's still huge, so I'm going to post the whole thing as a link a little later. But first we'll take a winder angle at Grimassi's narrow crop.

Notice anything different?

Yeah, had I not literally seen this woodcut the day before buying the book, why... I might have taken the observation at face value.
The Grimassi crop is highlighted red.

Here we see three figures seated, not a god/dess pair, but rather a Goat on a throne flanked by two women. Each one is holding a bundle of snakes conveniently cropped in Grimassi's view. The child is bring presented not by "kneeling worshipers" but by a woman and a winged demon-figure (conveniently cropped). As far as what the text of the book in which this image appears says - I haven't the foggiest.

All about, people are involved in dancing and feasting.

Here's the aforementioned feast. Notice anything interesting here? There are demons and women feasting on HUMAN CHILDREN.

The dancers are composed of human females and demons dancing around a tree. The only male human I can suss out is a musician.

To be frank, the whitewashing of this image, and the manipulation of a narrow crop to "prove" a point is seriously irritating to me. This etching does not even vaguely depict a feast we'd recognize as a pagan survival. It's a Christian depiction of a diabolical sabbat. This image can inspire those of us who are Traditional Witches of a sabbatic tint, those of us who certainly don't eat babies, but don't feel the desire to whitewash over 90% of the picture to make it fit a preconceived idea.

But, I could be wrong here.

It's entirely possible that Mr. Grimassi only saw the smaller image, and didn't do any follow-up research to see if there was "more" to the image. It's possible that he took the single source, and it's content at face-value. I'm not exactly sure that paints a better view of his scholarship, however. It's a small thing, but it's one of those things that just stuck in my craw. I'll post a full review sometime in September.

(NOTE: The "whitewashing" referred to in this entry is NOT meant in the racial sort of way, but rather in the sense of "Painting over the things you don't like" in an entirely different way)


  1. Very interesting. Thanks for posting, Lady Scylla! Of all the things that I do check and re-check from various books I may read, I don't think I've ever once thought to check the images. I know I've looked up a few of my favorites to buy prints or get more info, but I've never checked them for accuracy of cropping! Makes one wonder...

    I haven't read this work by Grimassi, so I look forward to your review.

  2. I don't view him as "less" of an author because of it. Like I said, this is a small thing. It just happens to be a small thing that irritated me to no end. :P

    In general, I like what I've read. I think that a pass by a more conservative editor, and perhaps taking a few steps back would help immensely. I find authors who have an investment in their subject engaging, but authors who have -too- much investment, or a desperate investment very, very, off-putting. He's straying a little too close to the latter in some places.

  3. hmm.. i have always been weary of some books researched history, having a academic background. but them i am weary of academic historys on the pagan topic for much the same reason. that reason is that it can be quite easy to stack the evidence to say what you want it to say by cropping pictures or leaving out sources etc etc. while academics miss out on that quintessential but hard to reference 'spirit' evidence, those that write from a place of strong belief often will leave out evidence that is contrary to what their thesis is. its a tricky balance.. so i what i ended up doing is to read all the available material at the time and come to my own conclusions..

    girls gotta have a hobby right?

    looking forward to seeing what you have to say about Grimassi's "Italian Witchcraft". i have not read it but have read varing conflicting reviews of it.. hmm.. *ponders this*..


  4. I'd like to know where along the line the original crop was done, and for what reasons.

    @Pombagira: Unfortunately it's just as easy for academics to leave out details and/or references that conflict with their thesis, especially when PhD's and grant money hangs in the balance...

  5. @Pallas - From what I can suss out, the cropping happened either at the level of the book, or at the source from which the Author took it. However, the source cited (Tableau de l' inconstance) has the image in full as a large fold-out, and from my research is a rather typically scathing assault on diabolical witches, in keeping with the Maleus-esque works.

    I don't read French (I should probably learn), but google-books has the whole original up for reads for those that do Tableau De l'inconstance des mauvais agnes et daemons. It does not appear to have the fold-out image of the sabbat scanned in, but other sources do.

    A second source (Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany) shows the full etching with the attributions to the Tableau. That page is available on Googlebooks

    A third source is "Exorcising our Demons" which may or may not show the full illustration, but does reproduce some of the text accompanying it. Again, a whole section of this is available on google-books.

    As a particular note: That third source looks like a book I need to pick up.

  6. Ah. The "Murray Game:" crop things, take quotes out of context, and hope to beguile people into believing in a Religion that Never Was.

    Still boring a century later. Raven Grimassi had better step up his game real quicklike.

  7. Yet another case of selective re-interpretation and shoddy scholarship. Who's surprised?

    Good work.

  8. Ah nicely noted. Unfortunatly, a lot of the lesser savoury parts of witchcraft depiction are left out by the the more pagany authors, which is a shame. I think any witch would benefit by learning about the antinomastical ways and heresy that came and in hand with quite a lot of medieval and early modern witchcraft, they are ever present motifs present all over the world/ages.

    Very nice blog, on follow.

  9. @ Faust - Thus far I've only read two of his books, but they both have the vague, lingering -thing- that bothers me about them. I believe there was SOMETHING being practiced, but I don't think any author has yet found that one conclusive piece that names the whole thing.

    @Psyche - So far what I've found is -forced- interpretations. I.e. massive amounts of info "and this is why you should think it means the same thing I do, as I elaborate for four to five times the length of the source material I quote repeatedly." He's got too many dogs in this fight, and it shows.

    @Alexandra - What gets my goat (AH!) is the omission of any material. To hide 90% of a picture ... er... well... hides 90% of the damned picture. We can't reach a conclusion on our own, and that seems to be the entire shortcoming of the book. It does not allow the reader to reach their own conclusions.

  10. Here's a nice detailed image of the foldout:

    The whole thing about eating babies does seem pretty common in some of these depictions. In this one, it says they are eating the hearts of unbaptized babies and other parts of people and animals "disgusting to Christians." I wonder if Grimassi thought that he could read between the lines somehow with this image, because really, there is no way to look at it and think it is anything but propaganda, some of it laughable, like the two witches at the bottom who are about to cook a toad in a kettle fired by skulls. There is a Wikipedia entry about the author, and apparently he was obsessed with the degeneracy of the Basques, which in his opinion came out in their love of dance. Notice a few parts of the big image show the witches dancing.

    I do read some French, but this French has a lot of weird spelling. I was not able to find the place where the "key" to the picture is, despite it saying on there it goes with p. 118-119. I looked through that whole section "Discourse Four" and couldn't find it. I would have liked to see what it said about the figures by the devil. All I could find was a mention of the Queen of the Sabbath. That's obvious, but who's the other woman? The previous queen?

    It is really discouraging to find that someone has done something so dishonest as to crop a picture to change its meaning. I am really glad, though, that you posted about it.

    Re academics, I find I get a lot more magic out of academic histories of magic than I do out of contemporary writings by magic workers, with some exceptions. There is just too much dreck out there, too much ignorance. Academics do have axes to grind, but most of them are big enough to see a mile away. The academic history of magic in the past ten years or so has radically changed. I have found some real gems in the latest Wilby book, for instance.

  11. @Harold - Thank you! I searched pretty widely and could not find a nice version of this image. Your link is an exceptionally nice one, clear, and crisp!

    As for reading between the lines: Well, I could see that perhaps describing the figures as "The Maiden, The Horned God, and The High Priestess" might work. But that would've meant including the demon in the crop, and explaining one's way around that might be rather harder.

    Personally, yeah... I see propaganda, I see intentionally grotesque and scandalizing images because that was the point: Even if there were witches out in the woods doing things pretty much like we do them now - the intent was to show what The Church and the populace thought of them. Which was that they were baby-eating demoniacal madwomen.

  12. What I have sometimes wondered is whether there was what I think of as a Mafia movie effect. Years ago there was a movie that showed that guys who joined the Mafia had to go through this "ancient Sicilian blood ritual" where they cut their hands or something as part of their admission. I don't remember the details. This was something admittedly made up by the screenwriter. But it turned out that guys in organized crime began doing it and eventually claimed, as in the movie, that it was an ancient Sicilian ritual and that they had always done it. It became true. I have wondered whether something similar might not have happened with witchcraft, at least in some places and times. For instance, in book about Isobel Gowdie, she "confesses" to doing a number of things such as burning an image of the local laird's child in order to harm it. I wondered when I read it if people did not say to themselves, "Well, witches do evil and contrary things, so if I practice witchcraft, I will do evil and contrary things." IOW, whether the propaganda became somewhat absorbed into the actuality. It would seem to me that this kind of propaganda could be a seriously distorting force on the actual practice.

  13. @Harold - Very true, but if it distorted and became part of the practice, it's still history. We can find all the remains and traces we like of Pagan survivals, but we must also accept the malefic tint of the middle-ages as part of what legacy we have.

  14. I'm a reader of your site for a while. I like your thoughts, experiments and you research. Thank you for posting.
    I've also read Italian Witchcraft, Hereditary Witchcraft and The Witch's Familiar all by Grimassi and I have to say that, in my opinion and being gentle, they are not well researched at all.
    It is not the first time Grimassi do a misleading interpretation of historical engravings or depictions, SPOILER:
    In his other book, Hereditary Witchcraft (also about Italian Witchcraft), there are pictures from the famous Estruscan Mirrors. Grimassi takes the pictures from Etruscan Roman Remains by Charles.G.Leland (like most of the material in his books), he put them in a determined order and he tries to convince readers they are artistic representations of the Year Mythos of Diana/Tana and Dianus/Tanus, that obviously is not true because at the bottom of each mirror are engraved in Estruscan alphabet the true names of the actual Etruscan deities. It is not an accidental mistake it is misleading. And I would continue but I don't want to spoil anymore ;-)


  15. Having worked with Grimassi as a personal assistant, I can shed some light on this. The cropped image was created simply to focus on the "couple" that Grimassi was referring to in the text, and it is not an attempt to hide anything else in the drawing.

    Nowhere in the brief text appearing with the cropped image does Grimassi claim it is a historical representation. In fact all he says is that "The importance of this image is that it shows a male and female entity overseeing the Sabbath."

    Grimassi's intent is to show the similarity of the concept of a horned god and a consort goddess in this drawing with that of the general concept in the Craft. The woman in the third throne, and the diabolical depiction of the Sabbat are irrelevant to his point.

    As to the other comment about Grimassi's use of the Etruscan mirrors, he never states that these mirrors were ancient Etruscan depictions of the Wheel of the Year. He is simply using the drawings for the theme imagery that happens to represent in his eyes a connection to Sabbat he assigns each mirror to. In other words, he notices a theme in a mirror that reminds him of a Craft myth associated with one of the Sabbats, and so he chooses to use the mirror image as an artful expression of it. His reason for using the mirrors in the first place is because they are part of the culture of southern Europe and so wants that energy to be reflected.

    I am amazed at the misunderstanding of Grimassi's material and the misrepresentation of his personal character on this discussion. But I hope that my introducing some facts into the discussion will help people obtain an informed opinion of Grimasssi's work.

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. @Tamara - I'm sorry if you feel there is any assault on my part toward Raven Grimassi's character. There is absolutely none. I do not mince my words, and had I felt any particular need to assail his character I would've done so with very colorful words, at great length. I won't apologize for the rest of the commentators, though, as I think this whole topic brought up some really interesting food for thought.

    To not mince words: In Italian Witchcraft, he has not maintained a favorable distance from his topic. I feel spends entirely too much text wound up in making sure the reader reaches no other conclusion than the one he has reached. For a book on metaphysics that is not much of an issue, but I hold him to a higher standard because of his own words (and those of others) assuring me that he is a scholar first, newage author second.

    I.e. "I don't think he's deceitful, but I am shocked that someone referred to as a scholar would have such a narrow sample of a source material, and fairly bury it in personal conclusions." How the small cropped image can be anything valid if nothing else is valid is not something I can wrap my head around.

    Had he intended to use it as an illustration that the -idea- of a Horned God and Consort were important in those times all he had to do was use the selection he chose and give an attribution. To highlight the characters depicted and attempt to make links to deities and figures of folklore, and suppose that they are the same beings, while ignoring the rest of the image whole-cloth is where I gritted my teeth.

    I acknowledge that he is generally favorably-viewed as an author, and that he has done his research, but that does not mesh with what I see here: Cropping out the icky bits, and linking the "cleaner" image to Pagan belief. There is no link between the image and pagan belief. That is pure propaganda, and attempting to use it for pagan purposes is a failed pursuit from the start.

    This post, however, is a narrow crop of my whole opinion on the book. As I've said repeatedly: It's a small thing, but it irked me. It's a small section of the book, which got me thinking. This narrow crop is one I intend to expand on, though.

    There will be reviews of this book, and I imagine that there will be at least one that will be far more unkind, scathing, and filled with bile than mine (which as it stands, is downright sugary) could ever hope to be.

    (Comment shortened/reposted due to blogspot posting issues)

  18. Lady Scylla, I wasn't saying you personally attacked Grimassi's character. It's clear you're questioning his reason for using the image as he chose to, but that is different from attacking his character.

    But others here have stated things that are in the tone of character assassination. There's a big difference between criticizing how an author presents his material and trying to make a case for that author as a villan of some sort.

    Grimassi's book on Italian witchcraft was published in 1995 and was his first professionally produced work. Sure it has some flaws as do many books.

    But back to the point about the drawing. Again, Grimassi is not trying to present it as historical. Images of this period always distort the Sabbat with demons in attendance, and witches engaged in heinous acts. But in essence Grimassi is pointing to a horned figure and a queen by its side (note the crown)and saying isn't interesting that perhaps something factual is surfacing in the lies surrounding it.

    But ultimately Grimassi is not offering the drawing as proof of anything. He's just pointing to an interesting thought. And Grimassi isn't trying to whitewash the illustration, he's ignoring the rubbish in it. Being upset with that doesn't make sense to me.

  19. And here is where the issue begins: "Images of this period always distort the Sabbat..." / "And Grimassi isn't trying to whitewash ... he's ignoring the rubbish in it."

    No one alive ever attended a Sabbat or Treguenda in the time period depicted in these illustrations. No one alive ever stumbled upon them from an outside perspective and witnessed them from a hidden place. No one alive can say whether or not there was any distortion, what events were witnessed and recorded, or what witches of those times were actually doing.

    I know of witches who believe themselves to be reincarnated, and that they had been witches before. They say that those images are more fact than fiction. Their past-life impressions should be held no less valuable (and no more valuable) than those who say otherwise - just to address that issue.

    For me, and apparently for a lot of my readers: This image, and images like it, are not "rubbish" to be sifted or filled with "distortions" to be corrected. They are treasures to be carefully preserved in their totality. One doesn't go to an archaeological dig and discard anything that's not stone simply because they believe the site to be exclusively paleolithic and that the material from other periods is rubbish to be ignored. These accounts are the bulk of what we know about our collective witch-history. Written by the victors? Absolutely. But invaluable. Priceless. Not rubbish even if they are not factual - and we have (as of yet) no real way to know what is and is not fact in the mire! The more information we lose, the more lines between our modern interpretations and old ones that we blur, the more we lose.

    This is our thready, precious, and quickly vanishing history. If their depictions of sabbats were distortions, we should take a lesson and cease distorting the past to "fix" it.

    Does it make more sense that I find it irritating now? Had he simply used the crop as an illustration with the caption "Sabbat King and Queen from le' inconstance..." it would not have irritated me in the least. It was the description which seemed to pick and choose, to sift, "clean up" or - as I used the word here - whitewash, that raised my hackles.

    Given that he wrote this book very early in his career - it makes a bit more sense. From what I have read of his newer efforts he has developed a much more mature/discerning voice as an author.

  20. Yes, Italian Witchcraft was not written as a scholarly work for an academic press. Grimassi wrote it as witch for witches.

    But yes, Grimassi has turned his attention to more serious writings over the years and with a greater emphasis on academic matters. I think his books The Witches' Craft, and Witchcraft: A Mystery Tradition are excellent and in them we have a pagan scholar's hand.

  21. It is indeed dishonest, Tamara. You cannot crop a picture of two women and the devil so that only one woman and the devil show and use that as an illustration of a lord and lady ruling over the Sabbat. That doesn't work in scholarly writing, and it doesn't work in pop writing either. It's false and misleading. I am astounded by it, frankly, and I am also very surprised to see someone who responds to fair criticism of something like this and tries to turn it into a personal attack on the author. Any author should be able to defend anything s/he writes. There is no defense for this. It is not an illustration of the lord and lady of the Sabbat in any way, shape, or form. It never has been. It should never have been presented that way.

  22. 2 years later and I stumble upon this entry. Thank you so much for writing it. Your opinion is valuable and I have to say I agree with your assessment 100%