BMCR 1998.05.11

The Rotting Witch: The Origin of the Witch in Classical Antiquity

, The rotting goddess : the origin of the witch in classical antiquity's demonization of fertility religion. New York: Autonomedia, 1998. 153 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 9781570270352 $12.

This book presents the reviewer with some methodological difficulties because, although it makes various claims to scholarship, has source material and seems to derive from a thesis (acknowledgements), it does not sit happily alongside other books that would fit that description. Rabinowitz (‘R.’)’s stand is a neo-pagan one 1 and therefore is approached more suitably as an object of study to the historian of religion than as the contribution of a colleague. However, the introduction does make specific claims about scholarship and refers to scholarly work; and my audience is scholarly. This review therefore falls into two sections, one assessing from the angle of scholarship (i.e. locating The Rotting Witch in that tradition) and the other undermining the criticism of the first section by experimenting with how we should respond to this body of material (i.e. locating us around R., and his ilk.)

The book is divided into four sections: Hekate, the Witch, Conclusion, Appendices.

From the point of view of orthodox scholarship, R. makes a variety of highly questionable claims and complaints: ‘witchcraft in antiquity is a subject which has never been seriously studied’ has a point in that I can find no dedicated work on the subject. But when R. continues ‘Hekate has similarly been slighted as a subject’, he seems to have forgotten his own copious references to Kraus. 2 When he says ‘the textual commentaries and studies of specific classical authors … confine themselves to literary analysis … without meaningful examination’, he attributes ‘meaning’ only to his interest, which seems to be the teleological construction of a historically intact category culminating in the present. The accusation that ‘all scholarship … has averted its eyes with a shudder [from] the mysteries [of witchcraft]’ seems to betray the same perspective of righteousness. Perhaps it is true that there is no exhaustive work on witches through the ages; but neither is there a similar work (to my knowledge) on blacksmiths, messengers, horse-riders or lavatory attendants. What R. fails to see is that our failure to fulfill his expectations might say more about his agenda than our own.

Frequently R. wriggles out of issues that he seems to consider distractions: these range from the downright contradictory (‘I have chosen to use available translations … because a good literary rendering would necessarily be interpretative and tendentious … the translations are emended here and there for additional clarity’, p. 149) to simply nonsensical (‘Hekate is often called Artemis, but no clear reference to Artemis is ever qualified by the name Hekate’, p. 21, citing Aesch. Supp. 677, which refers to ‘Artemis-Hekate’). Nor does R. adhere to conventional abbreviations, as promised on p. 149. Methodologically R. belongs with Frazer (without his avowal that we had ‘moved on’ to ‘rationalism’) and Jane Ellen Harrison. 3 These are names for which I have admiration, if not acceptance, and though they go unacknowledged, I find it impossible to believe that they were not consulted (see esp. pp. 116f on the ‘ouranian/chthonic’ dichotomy). Harrison would certainly not have produced anything as anachronistic as this: see her eager adoption of then-contemporary anthropology, in the preface to the second edition of Themis and the original introduction.

Religious meaning is sought almost entirely through origins and reorganisation: thus Artemis was ‘originally’ a Great Mother, who became the virgin huntress and was spared the embarrassment of maternity by the transfer of her jurisdiction over childbirth to Hekate. There is also the familiar (and discredited) cross-cultural and synchronic process of casting around for similar features elsewhere, irrespective of context: ‘All ritual trees and posts used in religious ceremonies partake to some extent (what extent? 30%? 67.3%?) in the character of the Universal Tree’, R. informs us, citing a voodoo ritual and the Vedic Satapatha Brahmana (p. 23). One is left wondering if a ritual can count without a tree-representation. The collection of attributes allows Hekate to ‘have a link with’ a dazzling array of other deities from other cultures, including the Dahomean Legba (the notes inform us that Dahomey is an ‘ancient West African kingdom’). But if meaning is to be found in a cultural context, then R.’s comparative findings are impossible to accept. Transmission is obviously not an issue, for the teleology of religion is presumably the ‘discovery’ by various cultures of bits and pieces of ‘the truth’, just as R. is ‘rediscovering’ it.

R. surprises the student of Roman religion by noting ‘a general failure among classicists to appreciate the very central place of the moon in the Roman religious world … Luna [is] the central fact of Roman religion’ (p. 43). A few quotes from Varro and the importance of agriculture (influenced by the moon) do not convince me of this; but three and a half pages of text (including almost two taken from Apuleius’Metamorphoses) hardly suffices to overturn such endemic ‘confusion’. Perhaps my failure to grasp this ‘central fact’ is the reason why I cannot accept the ensuing argument that Hekate syncretised with ‘the threefold moon goddess Juno’ in the 1st century BC. Working with Dumézil’s tripartite system, but insulting the care which that scholar worked to establish his arguments, R. assimilates ‘the entire morphology of the sacred’ to Luna, though he gives no date for this important phenomenon (p.55). When Hekate is assimilated to dogs (without any excursus on what a dog was for the Greeks or Romans; R. is happy with the term ‘pet’), we are asked ‘What did the Graeco-Roman world hear howling at the barred gate of its awareness which it was at such pains to explain as the hounds of Hekate?’ (p. 67: original emphasis). R.’s readers might like to look at one of those rare occasions where a scholar has managed not to avert his or her eyes and consult (e.g.) Gordon’s piece in Pagan Priests 4 on Lucan’s Pharsalia, which contains many of our answers to all of his questions and complaints. If a scholar had taken the time to produce ‘a comprehensive’ account of the witch in antiquity, it would not resemble R.’s account: it would be centred not on validation of an ontological category, but on power in ancient society. In a culture where ‘magic’ was accepted as efficacious but certain (often charismatic) forms of magic and practitioners were marginalised, what is at stake regarding a witch is not just ‘her’ deities but the claims inherent in performing different rites for different purposes. Such studies are dismissed as ‘tributary to discussion of such ill-posed and insoluble questions as “the difference between magic and religion”‘ (p. 13).

What fails to work about such a methodology has required nearly a century of scholarship to detail, and it is not my intention to reproduce a summary of that effort. This kind of assimilation is grossly opportunistic, and forever looks for ‘a link’, then uses that to utterly efface any ‘non-link’. It is not that ancient cultures did not reinvent their deities, but they certainly did not do it in the way that R. would like us to believe, where the divine hierarchy is reorganised in a manner reminiscent of a corporate restructuring.

The second section, on the witch, adds insult to injury: I cannot, for instance, agree that ‘a feminist reading of the evidence … is perhaps insufficiently profound’ to explain the ‘fascination’ with the witch in antiquity (p. 81). It seems unnecessary to offer that any study of the witch in antiquity will necessarily have recourse to feminist scholarship. R. will not be diverted from his semi-explicit agenda of validating an historical tradition of which he and his colleagues designate themselves the heirs; any opposition is simply dismissed. When R. gently chides Burkert for not grasping the ‘generally recognised schizophrenia of Greek religion’ (pp. 116-117) and moves on to warn against ‘moral euphoria at the price of simplistic analysis’ (p. 117), we know that R. withstood years of post-graduate training without succumbing to it. In short I dispute his claim, when he acknowledges his supervisors, that they ‘made of me a scholar.’

There is more at stake here than a book which should not be given to undergraduates: there is the living formation of a religious tradition. Thus, R. ends with ‘Those who would learn the Craft of the Wise must embrace not only the nymphlike generation-spirit of Asia Minor, but exult in the corruption of the Rotting Goddess of Rome, and pass the initiatory night at her side, sharing her shroud’ (p. 122). Having asked ‘what can R. do for us?’ I must acknowledge the question ‘what can we do for R.?’ Some of the results of a clash between contemporary culture and academic scholarship have surfaced in the issue of Black Athena. Comparably, R. has appropriated material which we have traditionally considered our reserve for his own purposes. His defiance of our agenda (whatever that might be at any given moment) is a necessary part of that purpose. So when I deny that he is scholarly I am creating more of a conundrum for myself than for him—notwithstanding my irritation with his unjustified pretensions to scholarship. There is a difficulty inherent in deciding where a scholar should stand in relation to religion but it would be rather arrogant to applaud a rehabilitation of ancient religion while castigating present efforts. The deployment of ancient material in the construct of present identity is, of course, one aspect of what all scholars do; it just becomes more noticeable when someone constructs a different identity from the norm. But just as we might examine the interpretations of ancient material in film, 5 so too we must frame a response that takes account of the whole of R.’s agenda, not merely his academic pretensions. Anthropologists are notoriously keen on other people practising religion, while they retain a dignified (or is it awkward?) distance from their material; and in a harshly critical environment, respect for a religious tradition that fails to meet scholarly standards is often mistaken for acquiescence. Lest that fate befall this reviewer, let me echo and applaud the words of Ronald Hutton in his discussion of neo-paganism and its reference to the ancient world. He acknowledges ‘one genuine Graeco-Roman tradition, that anybody could make up their own religion … but this [re-invention] does leave somebody with a genuine love of and interest in the peoples of the ancient world, prepared to accept them upon their own terms and for their own sake, feeling acutely sad and lonely’. 6

1. On which see R. Hutton The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (Oxford, 1991) pp. 330-340.

2. T. Kraus Hekate, Studien zu Wesen und Bild der Göttin in Kleinasien und Griechenland (Heidelberg, 1960).

3. J. E. Harrison Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion (repr. London, 1989) J. Frazer The Golden Bough London (1911-15).

4. R. Gordon ‘Religion in the Roman Empire: the Civic Compromise and its Limits’ in M. Beard & J. A. North Pagan Priests (London, 1990) pp. 233-256.

5. M. Wyke Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema and History (London: Routledge, 1997).

6. Hutton (n.1), p. 340.