In 1946 the Torinese scientist and author Primo Levi was working at a paint factory in Avigliana. It was here that wrote the first draft of If This is a Man, a scrupulously honest, empathic report of the suffering he had seen and experienced at Auschwitz. At the same time, he was writing short stories and poems. “The Witch” relates a story told to him by his colleague Felice Fantino, who loved talking about the ‘wise woman’ who could be found in every Piedmontese village.
A long time under the covers
She hugged the wax to her breast
Until it was soft and warm.
The she got up, and gently, carefully,
With a loving patient hand
Molded the living effigy
Of the man who was in her heart.
When she was done, she threw oak
And grape and olive leaves on the fire
With his image, so it would melt.
She felt she was dying from the pain
Because the charm had worked,
And only then could she cry.
Avigliana, March 23, 1946
(Primo Levi Collected Poems: Translated by Jonathan Galassi)
Sabina Magliocco says in her article “Witchcraft, Healing and Vernacular Magic in Italy” that a belief in witches and witchcraft was once widespread in all regions of Italy:
“…ordinary people relied on folk healers to cure their ailments and on local midwives to deliver their babies. These women often had extensive knowledge of herbs and their uses, and were able to alleviate a number of diseases. There was a sense that life was a precarious enterprise, full of dangers at every turn; magic was one of many protective strategies people employed to ensure their survival and that of their family members. Against this background, most people maintained a magical view of the world.”
She suggests that folklore practices and magical beliefs survived longer in Italy than elsewhere in Europe because of the great difficulty of life and the fact that the social center tended to be a small village rather than a big city:
“Until after the Second World War, the majority of the Italian population were contadini (peasants) who resided mostly in small, agricultural towns and villages. Rural conditions varied widely depending on the region, but for most contadini, living conditions were harsh. Many lived under feudal conditions as virtual serfs to powerful landowners. Life in small-scale communities involved intense social relations which often became strained, leading to quarrels, feuds and mutual suspicions between neighbours. Witch belief and accusations of witchcraft must be understood as part of this political and social climate.”
The ever-present threat of disaster makes sense of a desire for any protection, however unreliable. Particular anxiety was shown with babies, given the high rate of infant mortality. Another high-anxiety subject was crops, which could be ruined by any number of blights. In the highlands of Sardegna, this spell used to be uttered over the field to keep marauding birds away during the season of threshing and harvest (high summer, when the ‘dog star’ shines):
Su cane ardente
non appas in mente
de toccare sa robba mia
in custu monte violente
inie ti balles solu
no appas console
de sa robba mia.
The burning dog
does not intend
to touch my crops
in this violent mountain
may you dance alone
without the consolation
of my harvest.
The village-centric composition of Italy was utterly transformed by huge changes in the second half of the twentieth century–urbanization, immigration, the building of a transportation network, the development of compulsory education based on national norms, the diffusion of mass media, and the improvement in sanitation healthcare. I have the feeling the traditions are hanging on somehow, but it’s not the sort of information locals hand out to tourists. The most I’ve been able to glean so far is that there’s an alpine artemisia that works as a powerful analgesic and that to treat a stye all you have to do is look inside a bottle of oil with the infected eye.
A community reliance on magic and ‘wise women’ is a feature of lots of other poor, rural societies. Mikhail Bulgakov, for example, describes alternatively humorous and horrifying examples of folk medicine he encounters during his stint as a doctor in the Russian countryside from 1916 to 1917. Here’s an excerpt from A Country Doctor’s Notebook in which the nurses describe incidents from their practice:
‘What about the sugar?’ Anna Nikolaevna exclaimed. ‘Tell him about the sugar, Pelagea Ivanovna!’
Closing the stove door and lowering her eyes, Pelagea Ivanovna began:
‘One day I went to a confinement at Dultsevo…’
‘That place Dultsevo is notorious!’ the feldsher burst out, then apologized: ‘Sorry! Do go on, my dear.’
‘Well, naturally I examined her,’ Pelagea Ivanovna went on, ‘and in the birth canal I felt something extraordinary…There were some kind of grains or small lumps…It turned out to be granulated sugar!’
‘How’s that for a story!’ said Demyan Lukich triumphantly.
‘Excuse me, but…I don’t understand…’
‘That’s peasant women for you!’ answered Pelagea Ivanovna. She’d been taught by the local wise-woman. She was having a difficult birth, she said, which meant that the baby didn’t want to come out into the light of day. She would have to entice it out, so the way to do it was to lure it out with something sweet!’
Nigerian academic Toyin Falola devotes a whole chapter of A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt: An African Memoir to the elderly healer woman of his town, named Iya Lekuleja. The first time he sees her, he is immediately convinced she is otherworldly:
“She was different from any woman I had ever seen. Right away I told myself that I had seen an iwin, a spirit in human skin. She fit perfectly well into the many descriptions of an iwin that I had heard or read about….All moonlight stories portrayed an iwin as smallish and pipe smoking. I had seen one. An iwin could look ragged, naked, half-dressed. This woman was scantily dressed, with just a small wrapper tied around her body. There was not enough light for me to see her fully, to describe all her features. An iwin revealed only small parts of itself and only in a short appearance so that no one would be able to capture the full picture. The woman spoke little; actually, she mumbled her response, as spirits did in their world. As she had appeared from nowhere, and the main door had been locked (I checked the door twice), I told myself that the woman was one of those iwin that came from the underworld.”
One of his friends quickly disabuses him of the notion that the woman is a spirit and tells him she is an odd old woman who gathers herbs and sells them. The child Falola is still fascinated by her and even as an adult (employed at a Texas university) continues to feel admiration and dread for her, to the extent that he confides, “Most of my misfortunes, all my negative feelings, and my anticipation of troubles, I attribute to a part of me that desires to unlock what I know about Leku.” His description of her shop is very detailed, suggesting he spent a long time gazing at the strange assortment of medicaments:
“She had a successful store on a street corner about six miles from the house. This was the most famous store for herbs, ingredients for all diseases and ailments, and mixtures and materials for all kinds of charms, both for good and for evil….I doubt if Leku herself could have known the number of items in the store. Arranged in a way known only to her, they comprised an assortment of all known herbs, dried leaves, roots of many kinds of trees and shrubs, fresh and dead plants, bones of various animals (including tigers, leopards, and hyenas), skulls of various animals, dried rats, rodents, other animals, dry and living insects such as millipedes and centipedes, reptiles (including parts of snakes, lizards, and alligators), rocks and soils, and ritual lamps and pots. Tortoises, snails and small cats walked around, and they, too, were for sale. Dangerous scorpions in bottles, as well as snakes in cages, were waiting for food and ready to bite. It was from these various objects…that she got her name of Iya Lekuleja (the seller of assorted charms and medicine). Leku was just an abbreviation, used mainly behind her back; it is shorter but it cuts off the dignified word, Iya (elderly mother).”
It may seem strange, but all of the above examples of wise women and their works are from the last century, give or take a couple of years. There are many places in the world right now where faith in folk medicine and wise women still exists. In Saudi Arabia, a special Anti-Witchcraft police Unit was created in 2009 and people have periodically been executed for committing the crime of sorcery. In 2006 Egyptian Mustapha Ibrahim, for example, was accused of practicing magic in order to separate another man from his wife. ‘Evidence’ found at his home included books on black magic, a candle with an incantation to summon devils and ‘foul-smelling herbs’ . In 2011 Amina bint Abdel Halim Nassar was beheaded for possessing and selling glass bottles filled with liquids supposedly used for the purposes of magic, as well as books on sorcery. In 2008, Fawza Falih was sentenced to death when a man accused her of making him impotent through the use of spells (although her sentence was postponed, she died in prison from malnutrition and health problems).
In this article from The Atlantic, Ryan Jacobs points out something true about Muslim culture that I found quite strange, being used to a culture that strictly partitions religion and witchcraft:
“Belief in the supernatural and magic is quite common in Muslim culture. The Quran mentions jinn, which are demonic supernatural beings that were created out of fire at the same time as man. Some believe that jinn have the power to cause harm, and it is not uncommon for the possessed to visit faith healers or sorcerers tasked with ridding the evil.”
While living in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, I had several conversations with nice, well educated who believed in magic and, in one case, had actually invited a wise woman into her house to rid it of a bad spirit.
One of my students related an astonishing story (which he thought was completely true) about an Indian goldsmith travelling in Oman who also happened to be a magician. One day, whilst constructing an exceptionally large bangle for a client’s wife, he realized she must be nice and fat to need a bangle that big. He did some magic spying, caught a glimpse of the wife, who was indeed wonderfully fat. So he bided his time and, as soon as he got back to India, whisked up her house in a fast-moving hurricane and brought it over to India. The client returned to find both his house and wife had disappeared. Outraged, he consulted a local magician who somehow managed to reverse the spell and bring the house and wife back again. I think the goldsmith got his come-uppance, but unfortunately I don’t remember that bit. My other student (it was a class of two) strongly objected to the story, not because he didn’t believe it, but because it was unwise to even speak of such evil things.