Valvasorjevo nabrežje 4, Krško
March 24th - June 24th, 2017
On several occasions Lučka Koščak and I have discussed the position of women in contemporary society. Our conversation happened to turn on the subject also when I brought her the invitation to exhibit at Galerija Krško. As it was just around Halloween, our debate gave rise to an idea of an exhibition exonerating witches. We got even more intrigued by the subject when we had been told that it was in Krško that the last Slovene witch had been burnt. And when we found out that the gallery is situated in a desacralized church, and that the exhibition was scheduled almost entirely for the duration of calendar Spring, the decision was made.
The exhibition discusses a stereotypical (but from a modern perspective flawed and ideologically informed) treatment of witches as evil and malevolent creatures with supernatural powers. This perception has been preserved in the expression “vešča” (a moth) which in a derogatory sense denotes an old woman, a seductress, or a charlatan although it originally signified a woman of a certain skill or knowledge. In a way, this expression reflects the long tradition of persecuting witches – the gradual sedimentation of negative connotations on the originally positive ones.
A quick glance on the history shows how it came to be.
Sorcery can be defined in a broader sense as a way of conceptualising the world and the forces permeating it, while in the narrow sense, it denotes the skill of understanding and controlling these forces. As such, it is at the core of any religion, as well as central to coping with the nuisances of everyday life. In pre-Christian Europe, women had key roles in both fields. The central deity in pagan beliefs is a mother goddess, Mother Earth, symbolizing the unity of cosmos in which life and death, darkness and light, the good and the evil are just two sides of the same coin. Rites of passage were performed by priestesses to mark the key transitions in people’s lives (the birth, the wedding, the death) and natural processes (summer and winter solstice, lunar phases), celebrating the circle of life, fertility, and growth. While men were in charge of hunting and fighting, women were responsible for everyday activities such as guarding the fire and home, picking plants and herbs, and raising children. Comparatively, women were more concerned with their body as it was (in a ritualised manner) marked by menstrual cycles, broken hymen, pregnancy, giving birth, and finally the menopause. It was through these processes that women acquired knowledge about the nature and human body, contraception, obstetrics and medicine in general, and used the expertise to help themselves as well as others.
Approximately 2000 years ago and parallel to gradual dismantling of primitive society, the process of dividing cosmos into two parts started whereby the male solar deities occupy the positive pole while the female ones, traditionally associated with the moon, are ascribed the negative one.
This negative perception of women is also embedded in Christianity as its official doctrine associates women with the devil and expels them from performing the rituals of worship. Gradually, Christianity becomes the leading religion and, parallel to its gaining power, the negativism concerning women intensifies, reaching its peak in witch-hunt. An important turning point in the process is also the emergence of the 12th century heresies, during which women reclaim the role of priestesses. To persecute heresies, the Church establishes the institute of inquisition and gradually equates them to witchcraft. The inquisition accuses the heretics of worshipping Satan at Sabbaths that involved flying, uncontrollable gorging and drinking, as well as casting spells and causing misfortunes. This interpretation and various methods of torture to force confession (i.e. the water ordeal) and burning at the stake became typical of the later witch hunt with its most intense form in the 15th and 16th century during the transition to the early modern period. At that time, Europe was ravaged by plague, political, social and religious wars, famine, and poverty. These decimated the population, especially men while the survivors were consumed with pessimism, despair, and the feeling of guilt and sinfulness. The answer to the crisis came in the form of witch hunt which gained momentum with the publication of Malleus Maleficiarum (Hammer of Witches) in 1486. The book contains the theory or sorcery with a typical description of a Sabbath and reflects the perverted understanding of pagan rites of worship of life, and various methods of identifying and prosecuting witches, to which the inquisition assigned secular courts. It also abounds in what would nowadays be called hate speech about women who were blamed for everything. The book had devastating impact all over Europe. During secular witch trials, between tens of thousands and a few million people were murdered, among whom three quarters or even five in six were women. This mass hysteria only subsided in the 18th century with the age of reason and science. The damage done can still be felt today.
The phenomenon of witch hunt is very complex and still not completely clarified despite numerous studies. If we recapitulate the findings of interdisciplinary studies, from the political point of view, witch hunt was a means of brutal preservation of an obsolete system, reinforcement od absolute power and elimination of opponents. From the psychological aspect, it was venting people’s frustrations, compensation for the forbidden sexuality, and a means of enforcing a new (Puritan) morality. From the biological point of view, it was a battle to control sexuality, procreation, folk knowledge about birth control and medicine in general, and, last but not least, a means to acquire property and wealth. The underlying theme of all the above interpretations is reinforcement and preservation of a patriarchal social order which was established through an extensive process of driving women to the margins of society, and was based in the negative perception of women, with witch hunt at its bloodstained climax. Women were first banished from religion and later gradually from all fields of human endeavour and knowledge, ultimately from medicine where they were the frontrunners throughout the Middle Ages as herbalists, healers, nurses and midwives. The witches who died at the stake were therefore nothing more than the last women with the ancient knowledge about the nature and their own body, who compromised the self-evidentiality of patriarchy with their independence and knowledge.
The exhibition aims to restore through artistic means the positive tradition of sorcery and the true significance of witches / sorcerers, and above all shed light on the power of women in the past, the present, and the future. This idea permeates the central work of the exhibition. Placed in the symbolic centre of the church, it represents a naked woman standing astride and staring at her hands. This is not a woman grieving for her past, but a woman contemplating what she wants to and can do in the future. Whatever will be her next move?