Thoughts on cultural difference courtesy of Charles Zika

Belated follow-up to my last post about ANZAMEMS. The closing plenary on Saturday gave us the pleasure of hearing Charles Zika speak – I had never encountered Zika before, but by all accounts he’s something of an institution in Melbournian and indeed antipodean historical circles. I have one piece of advice: if you have the opportunity to hear Charles Zika speak, on any topic, ever, do so

The plenary, which was on the topic of early modern representations of a. witches and b. the Witch of Endor, and how the latter influenced artistic concepts of the former, began with Charles Zika giving a very personalised introduction to his methodologies. He spoke of his childhood as a refugee child immigrant in Australia, and his consciousness at a young age of cultural and religious difference. This, he said, made him ‘intellectually but also emotionally predisposed to engage with stories that speak of otherness’. Then, also interestingly, he spoke of a fascination with ‘strategies that close off understanding… or even feign misunderstanding’ between cultural and religious groups.

That awareness is, I think, critically important to the study of the past. It doesn’t have to come by the hard-earned personal route – I have little claim to experience of otherness myself, unless you count the odd dislocated place which antipodeans tend to occupy in Anglo-American cultural spaces (eg: European history; the Internet) – but I do think it is in the interests of Knowledge at Large if those hard-won personal knowledges and interests are allowed to enter into even apparently unrelated academic space. Who knows what we might find?

Zika then went on to demonstrate, if I understood him correctly, a pattern in northern European images of the Witch of Endor to follow certain exemplars. Alongside that, he showed generic images of witches following these images as their models, and, in one case, an example of reverse influence. He didn’t speak in the lecture itself about why it is that most of his evidence is northern, but in conversation afterwards he said he sees two possibilities: either he hasn’t found the southern evidence yet, or for some reason northern artists were particularly interested in the Witch of Endor imagery. You could tell he was leaning toward the latter conclusion, especially since one of the exemplar pictures was Italian, and copied by Dutch artists who had worked in Italy – but only after they returned to Northern Europe.

By and large, the lecture was about art history, and about ideas of how witchcraft operated (the Witch of Endor illustrations tended to show her with magic circles, books, and other accoutrements of masculine magic). Where the cultural difference comes in is in what witchcraft treatises – in which these images are found – were trying to do.

Zika takes a long view of the development of ‘canonical’ witchcraft theories – he asserted that they were still accumulating in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Witchcraft treatises, then, are ways of assembling information and putting forth certain views and explanations, not necessarily universally codified beliefs. And what they’re assembling and interpreting is a vast range of folk belief and practice – most of it culturally distant from the authors, if not in space then in vertical culture (wealth, class, religious training). The expectation of a universal witchcraft then required elaborate theories for unifying these diverse beliefs, and that seems to be where Zika’s witch-pictures come in: the Witch of Endor, as the only biblical witch, provided a grounding for witchcraft theories, an imagined past which might possibly connect the diverse present.

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