January 19, 2022

Interview with Professor Diane Purkiss, keynote for 'The Supernatural' conference

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/hrc/confs/supernatural/

In this third blog post for The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World, HRC doctoral fellows Francesca Farnell and Imogen Knox speak with Professor Diane Purkiss about how her interest in the supernatural came about, and how her research intersects with the conference themes.

What drew you to the supernatural originally?

I'm assuming you mean as a researcher, and if that's the case, the answer is that I began to write a book about feminist historiography at the suggestion of an editor at Routledge. One of the reader’s reports for the proposal thought that an example would make the book stronger, so I thought of topics that feminists had found especially interesting. That led me to witches. As soon as I started reading the histories of witchcraft alongside the source materials, I realised there was a huge methodological disparity between what the source material thought was central and what historians wanted to talk about. Oddly, all historians – feminist and established male – wanted mostly to talk about witch hunting. Everybody wanted to find out why it had happened, and everybody assumed that both the accused and the local accusers were simply pawns. As soon as I started reading the surviving trial material, it was really obvious to me that this wasn't so at all, that most accusers were working with a detailed and in many respects sophisticated analysis of the world of things and mastery of things, including growing things. So that led me to ask a lot of uncomfortable questions about why historians were so interested in distancing themselves from the popular mentalities they were supposedly trying to describe, and that's been one of my central questions ever since.

I had a short career as a professional tarot reader, but I was fraudulent in the extreme, though I greatly enjoyed it. I've never practised any magic. At one point, some kind friends took me to Glastonbury Tor on Halloween, and I watched them raising a cone of power – at least, that's what they said they were doing. My main memory is of being soaking wet and very cold. Afterwards they asked me if I'd felt anything. I hadn't. At that point, I think they decided I was spiritually dead.

Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History

Image: Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations (London, 1996)

Tell us about your current research, on the supernatural and sense of place

I'm an immigrant. I spent the first 23 years of my life in Australia. Unless you are Indigenous, Australia doesn't contain any magical places (I might also just about make an exception for surfers.) Europe, on the other hand, and increasingly also the Americas, is absolutely full of places that are soaked in the supernatural, in part because the land is marked and even scarred by the passage of people who are now long dead. I got very interested in places like Pendle Hill, which most people probably feel looks like an appropriate place to find witches – but on what basis? It's lonely, it's isolated, it's not just a boundary marker, but somehow transgressive in that it pushes up into the sky – in other words, it is a natural metaphor for the witches who once inhabited it. But when I think about this, I notice how very postRomantic it is – how much it depends on an underlying sense that nature has been overpowered, and an equal nostalgia for access to a vanished sense of wildness and danger. However however – what if we say that there actually are some moments in earlier cultures, even in Anglo-Saxon culture or late fourteenth century medieval culture where that wild nature becomes visible as a place which feels as if it's imbued with an uncontrollable supernatural? I'm thinking about Grendel, I'm thinking about Anglo-Saxon charms, I'm thinking about Gawain and the Green Knight. To some extent, all those texts try to interrogate a straightforward reading of wild nature as the home of the uncontrolled supernatural, but it's there to be interrogated. Perhaps… I am therefore interested in dialogues around places – the way we keep returning to some specific sites and asking what they mean. This is most obviously the case with Paleolithic and Neolithic survivals, but it can also be the case with much more recent creations. Does the place produce the belief, or the other way around? All this also brings to the fore terribly important questions about ownership, and contestation, especially around the borders of the nations that inhabit these islands.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, British Library

Image: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, British Library Cotton MS Nero A.x, article 3, ff.94v95

How did you come to this research?

It began with my book on fairies, which involved thinking about the difference between Scottish fairy beliefs and English fairy beliefs, and also the difference between belief in the Gaelic speaking parts of Scotland and the lowlands. This is a form of intersectionality which we often don't consider; how far is identity limited (or perhaps enabled) by place? Some of the witchcraft confessions I worked with for the fairy book contained beliefs that a historian of ideas would see as incompatible and also as deriving from different eras. Andrew Man, for instance, believes in a fallen angel whom he calls Christsunday, but also believes that Christsunday can transform himself into a black stag. That latter belief sounds as if it comes from an early medieval place of story, while the former is probably indebted to Calvinist Presbyterianism. How is it possible for one individual to hold both ideas in mind at once? In thinking about that, historians have tended to rush to the conclusion that popular beliefs are unexamined, or simply incrementally layered like wallpaper on top of what was there before. But these ideas are clearly contemptuous, elitist in the worst sense. What if we were willing to try to reconstruct Andrew’s worldview? This would have to be quite a daring mission, because it can't be credibly attested in the way that, say, James I worldview can be reconstructed or at least snapshotted. I've been using Deleuze’s idea of rhizomes as a way of talking about and thinking about the kind of evidence from folklore that we need to use to build a picture of a non-elite worldview.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things

Image: Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories (London, 2000)

What do you understand by the term supernatural? Is it a term you favour? Do you have an alternative term?

What a great question! I do like that term, because for me it includes organised religion as well as beliefs that are less fully authenticated by institutions. However, I know that many historians of religion refuse to use it on the grounds that it's insulting. I also quite like the term magic, as a catchall term for the belief that unregistered and unrecognised things might influence events. For me, a lot of this is about the role of the dead. There are a couple of huge ruptures in our dealings with the dead in these islands; the most recent is the Reformation, in which the dead were declared off-limits. People who believed in Reformation thinking literally stole the bones of the dead from the ossuary of Saint Paul's Cathedral in the middle of the night, and took them away to deposit in a marsh where they would never be found again. It was partly that they decided the bones of the dead were disgusting, and also partly that they didn't want people to have a physical connection with the physical church. But the banished dead are much scarier. They return in all kinds of strange magics. So I'm also very interested in talking about necromancy as the most important kind of supernatural, the one that governs and influences all the others.

You’ve engaged with this broad theme of the supernatural across various temporalities and geographies. What do you think is it about the supernatural that makes it such a fluid concept that can be applied to so many different societies?

I try hard to avoid cultural appropriation – for example, the word shaman should really just be used about the Yukagir, and those who have been directly influenced by them around the circumpolar rim (like the Sami), rather than applied to every form of priesthood. Nevertheless, it's not wrong to argue that the model associated with shamanism – the desire to and the ability to speak with the dead – is an important model in Western cultures who have hardly heard of Siberia or the Yukagir, in part because we have often forgotten our own mystic traditions which have separately given rise to similar patterns. Take, for example, katabasis, which literally means going below, and which characterises most religions of the Greeks and Romans, both the orthodox cults and the mystery religions, and is also a feature of epic and arguably also tragic poetry. Is it helpful to think of it in terms of the shaman? It is if this draws our attention to a phenomenon we might otherwise be tempted to ignore because it doesn't fit our wish for the ancient world to be civilised, or rational, or the foundations of the American republic, or something of that sort. But even so, we should be careful to note the huge differences. For instance, a shaman uses the drum. A lot of African American supernatural beliefs also involve the dead, including the problematically restless dead of slavery, and drumming and dancing are also critical parts of the culture of New Orleans that produced voodoo. But this doesn't mean that the drums played in Congo Square had the same significance as a shaman drum. There's often an overt risk of seeing all "primitive" or "tribal" cultures as similar. We in the West are now officially rubbish at dealing with our own dead, our own feelings, our own emotional needs. It's telling and quite awkward to notice people in California turning eagerly to cultures that have been condemned and even destroyed by their civilisation for help.

What role does suffering play in your work?

Without wanting to sound needlessly glum, I do think that history tends to play down suffering because it's another of those irrational and emotional things that's often less than susceptible to the kind of analysis historians want to do. Everybody now agrees that war induces trauma, but military historians continue to write as if trauma and PTSD can't possibly influence those in command. By contrast, a lot of my work has been about individual and also collective suffering and subjugation. I think that we as a culture are still wounded by decisions taken hundreds of years ago by a tiny elite, an elite that intrinsically wants to perpetuate itself and to act as gatekeeper for what counts as knowledge. As I say that, I'm conscious that it brushes uncomfortably against the kind of thinking we might associate with Qanon, but in this one case, left and right might have in common a sense of being excluded from the process by which knowledge is validated. I would point out too that Qanon has no new story to tell; instead, it's a retelling of the same old stories I’ve worked on all my professional life, a story about victim blaming, a story about the attribution of leftover randomly chosen bits of organised religion to political opponents. So I'm actively not saying that there is no truth. Instead, I'm going to try to register the suffering created by an exclusionary definition of where truth lies. I think we need to try to evolve a more inclusive methodology while rigorously excluding the reiteration of exclusive narratives.

So we don’t end on a sombre note, do you have a favourite supernatural anecdote or story?

If you ask me again in three days’ time, I might have a different answer, but for now I'm going with the Thomas the Rhymer/Tam Lin body of stories, which typically involve a polymorphic Fairy Queen of immense power acting as sexual predator, representing the unstoppable movements of time across the land, across the bodies of individual men and women, and the way she is opposed by a heroine who is no vapid princess, but strong in some of the same ways as the Greek hero Heracles. What I like best in this story is the equivocal nature of the fairy realm, which is the home of the restless dead but also therefore a timeless space. Ask me again in a week, and I might mention the boo hag, she bears a passing resemblance to the fairy Queen, possibly not coincidentally.

Katherine Cameron, ‘Thomas the Rhymer’

Image: Katherine Cameron, ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ from Stories from the Ballads Told to the Children (1908)

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