Why you may ask are old beliefs in “witchcraft” important to us? It is because we lack in understanding of how rural areas function. Our conception of peasantry is taken directly from the witch trials, we view rural areas as superstitious an uneducated, yet the research that has been done on the subject shows something different. It shows that rural Europe was unified. In most cases as an oral based society (because few could read), it shows Europe sharing a similar belief elements which must have been pre christian all revolving around battling for a natural life, taking part in every aspect of nature, from growing crops to weather shamanism, regulating social affairs mental disorders, mini political systems which are the epitome of a natural life. Where those areas are undisturbed even today we find centenarians living, working up to their 90’s.
Again we may ask so what? Why is it important that our great great grand parents had some bizarre night practices, that they could “double up at night” and wonder in a visionary states, that they could “kill” an animal in those visions which would turn into someone they knew. The importance is not just in that given practice, or any other, of which there are many. The importance is that ALL rural areas were like that, and that our current “educated” stance is in fact what drives us away from being able to live in natural areas. It is also the reason Western Europe has collapsed socially. That new phenomena of social takeover by a ruling class over the beliefs of the population is still the current social order.
Having worked and lived for 20 years in some of Europe’s most rural areas, I have come to the belief that we do not understand how they functioned. I have worked and taken part in many projects, people striving to build new communities in nature, only to see them fail. Yet the thing they fail on, is not being able to construct community. Spending years in Italy we thought that maybe the problem is the abandon process and lack of economy in the internal parts as they are called, referring to what is mostly the Apennines (because of Italian geography). Our advantage is that we also work with dozens of projects in the UK, and live in Wales. In fact being back in Wales, it seems almost as if any low key social innovation project which is not a business has disappeared. The case in England is much worse. What is going on?
Until not very long ago every village had characters, a butcher and bakery, a stone by the church was the key stone and people would go there to strike deals with each other, and the stone being in the middle of the village would bear witness. Now everything is homogenised. If you live in the city you can not see it, but people who grew up in the countryside all know, it is as if someone have declared a war on rurality, farming itself is disappearing now and no one has an answer to why?
You may have heard of rewilding, and the idea that we are all going to use farmlands for Carbon sequestration. Those are novel ideas, that highlight the fact that actually no one has an idea what to do with the countryside, the same process that has been started in the 16th century by the church and few feudal lords governing over a rural population has almost cleared rural life styles away. In truth the housing market and the rush to buy houses in the countryside which have been blamed for the collapse of rural communities in Britain is just the last step in this process. What is missing is the social core, the belief system that unified each village, a system that was almost universal.
Do I suggest we learn how to dream and hunt our fellow villagers like the Mazzeri of Corsica used to until the middle of this century, no I do not. I suggest we readjust our compass, and realise that the first point it must aim at is rurality. I also suggest we bring back the myths of the countryside back, and let them create small communities in nature. It all sounds all so very esoteric you may say, but in truth working with a series of small projects for the last 6 or so years, partly through the work of our non profit association Heartland and in many cases because they are our clients, I am vey close to the subject.
Together with a few others, we have come up with a set of tools almost, how to create community, how not to let your expectations of a life in rural areas get ahead of you. We have worked with small scale business plans, peasant bakeries, no irrigation farming, natural forest agriculture and even circular economy. These days I often get contacted by people looking to start a new project, sometimes looking for land in Italy. I would say that between all of our small projects we have a very clear idea of the situation, both in the UK and in Central Europe. There is a gap between the dream and reality, a gap that should not exist.
One of my friends in Italy has taken it as far as offering his land to new comers, a project he spent 10 years of hard work, I would say that giving someone your house is taking it a little too far, but the point is that from inside those projects one sees land ownership and development very differently, once you have been there and realised that currently the only thing that matters for everyone is that we must build a rural lifestyle again, and that the only way to support life in nature is the rebuilding of rural areas, turning those into balanced zones, protection belts if you want, against the total destruction of nature. You become a soldier to the cause. I would feel the same, owning 12 hectares in Italy, I see that only our small piece of land is a life time of dedication, and from there I can see it all turning around, if only everyone could do the same.
Once you understand the concept, rural farming practices, is like becoming a natural area scientist, where your job is to find the oldest varieties, to learn to grow food without intervention. When you understand the concept, where livestock become natural again, and you start looking for keystone species, to emulate a natural area that farms itself into biodiversity as nature intended. At this point you understand that the work is endless, and that in truth every moment we are not doing it, and any piece of land that is not taking part in it is like a suicide pact.
I thought we were unique. Living in Italy has woken me up to the fact that peasant farmers did exactly that all through history, each farm was a mastery of natural cultivation, I understood they were exactly like us, each of them understood his connection to the natural system, what to grow and what not to, it is easy if you edit the economic toll out of it, and stop trying to make money out of that piece of land, which is the distinction between peasant farming and agriculture.
Anyway, this is when I realised that in order to get back into those life styles we must rediscover the central myths that they revolved around, everything I thought I knew seemed very different, witches for example who I always viewed as a fairy tale, but seeing I have come to live like peasant farmers did 300 years ago, I had to ask myself who they were as if they were my neighbours. “Hang on” I said, what were witches? What actually happened in their lives. From then on I have discovered a whole world of village life which was almost mythical, with dreaming practices in which people would wage wars on their next-door village, weather control, shape shifting. Once you apply it to your own life you suddenly get the scope, they lived and worked a natural lifestyle at each of its elements.
In her book Dorothy Carington who has written extensively about Corsica theorised that because of the island’s Isolation, it preserved some of the earliest elements of a common practice. The Mazzeri “cult” were night hunters, except that they did so in their dreams. They would enter the hunting dream by “doubling up” (a term many other similar European “cults”, or “witches” use). In their dreaming body they would go on the night hunt. The amazing thing with the Mazzeri was that in the dying glances of the animal they hunted they would see the reflection of a person in their community, a person which would later die, usually within the year.
Like some of their other counter parts from the the mainland, like the Benandati of Friuli, they also would go to battle with neighbouring night dreamers, I think that maybe because they lived on an island they would only do so once a year, where the Benandati would do so four times, at times a Mazzere would die because they lost in the battle, and you can see that going too often presented issues. Unlike the Benandati and others, they did not occupy themselves with fighting over crops, which made Dorothy Carhington argue that possibly their practice precedes the others, possibly coming down through the generation from a time we were hunter gatherers. In what I think is a stroke of brilliance she put through the idea that this practice of theirs, was not really about killing members of their community as much as it was about being part in predicting death, or meeting fate if you want. Somehow they could affect the moment of death for some of their fellow villagers, at times even managing to save their lives, as if some long lost cult of the dead was passed down from generation to generation and the last practicing members could still witness the moment death came knocking on someones door, they enacted that moment as a dream hunt.
It is hard to understand those practices, especially as most of the accounts we have are written down as witch trials, which are arguably the changing point between an oral tradition to a literary society, it is probably the turning point of when we started losing touch with the core elements of true rurality.
Oral Europe functioned around a central myth, where it seems, any given area had its own dreamers. People in the Middle Ages slept differently to us too, they had two sleeps, after waking up in the middle of the night they would go back into dreams, it is usually then that the double dreams happened. Even so only a small number of people, maybe one or two in any given village would be the ones to have those night battle dreams, and the ability to create the dream body.
Some of the names they have given those people I think relate directly to the act of achieving that double dream body. They were called the night walkers, the women of the outside, the good walkers etc. A lot of the other names they have given themselves otherwise revolve around their function in the community, the good neighbours, the good patrons etc.
Why we can ask, did the community not turn on them, because having people in the midst of a village believed to have the capacity to kill others must have been terrifying. The answer I think was that each village functioned within a continuum in which those people were the makers of rural identity the spinners of a central myth. We can catch a glimpse of the old belief world of another Europe, and a social system that evolved around the natural from the seen to the unknown. We don’t know anything about that other Europe because it is masked behind our own ideas, inherited from the educated elite, in fact we view witchcraft like they did, because that elite has already left their natural and rural lives and existed as a rulers, lords and clergy men, they passed down to us the written records, sometimes by actually wiping out the existence of an oral tradition, a tradition so old it must have been present in the lives of our ancestors before they ever farmed, if they carried it for over 10,000 years they must have had a reason, a system so diffused, every part of Europe practiced it.
The question of why does it matter to us now still remains, the answer is that we have lost the core mechanisms of a life in nature, lost our relation with fate and climate. People in Middle Ages Europe did not simply live in villages like we believe, they had micro cosmos in each village with myriad of tales and legends, with the power to interact with the elements around them – rain and sun, the wind and the success of their crops. At times living a natural rural life and protecting and developing an area meant they could predict the deaths in their community, or in other words they took part in any natural process as if they themselves could also direct it, be it storms or success of their crops up to death death, they had a myth where they would meet fate, in their dreams they would enact any given natural process that was unseen, they could make it hail on their neighbours or fight for the success of their own fields, they took part in nature as a living myth.
Because of the loss of rurality everywhere in the world and the prevalence of written record, we find it hard to grasp that in truth any true rural community has always revolved around meeting natural forces and working with them, it is not enough for us to think we can create community in nature simply by farming, or even farming organically as a way to return to a more natural life, this magical system is also a myth of sorts that hold a village in unison, it becomes its gossip, the tales of wonder of human achievements, the characters are made from nature, passion, love and magic and turn into the social centre.
I dont know about you, but I have fallen in love, first with taking a piece of land and letting it express itself into its wildest expression, where it grows food through diversity, I am lucky because our land has wolves and bears, foxes and deer and wild boar to boot, many of the oldest varieties of fruit are naturally present still. I have also become totally in love with this idea, that we can return to true rurality, to small kitchen and bread ovens, lit by fire and smoking into the morning light, that we can revive the myths and practices of rural areas. That we can give wells and forests names, and that we can know their properties. Maybe you too will feel it, and find your own area and join us in the battle, and who knows maybe one day we can all dream again like our ancestors used to 300 years ago, and meet fate in our dreams again.