If I Kissed the Sole of your foot, would you limp a little afterwards? is a collection of edited field recordings, video footage and photographs gathered from Romania, when I was invited to present my research at the ‘International Conference, Images of Witchcraft: Cinema, Theatre, Visual Arts’ (17-19th October 2019).
The title of the work is appropriated from the Romanian poet Nichita Stanescu and summarises my experiences of Romania – hobbling across cobbled stones, driving through the Carpathian Mountains and exploring 16th century cemeteries.
For 52 ACTIONS, each post is accompanied by a sound piece that is approached as an individual score and references travel, exploration, and contemplation during COVID lockdown – revisiting memories and romanticising them through sound.
Naomi Blacklock is a Brisbane based artist whose practice maps the nexus of embodied performance, culture heritage and gender identity. Working across a range of media, from experimental sound installation, performance and sculpture, her work creatively examines the mythologies, archetypes and harmful histories of gender and cultural identity. Her ritualised sound objects and performances are intended to amplify the body and the voice through performative bodily precision and aural screaming. Blacklock’s work has been
presented at Dark Mofo, Hobart; Museum of Brisbane, Brisbane; University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane; Firstdraft, Sydney; and Seventh Gallery, Melbourne, amongst others. In 2019 she was awarded a Doctorate of Philosophy from Queensland University of Technology for her thesis Conjuring Alterity: Refiguring the Witch and The Female Scream in Contemporary Art. She is a Co-Director of Boxcopy, Brisbane, and is a founding member of CLUTCH Collective.
After three flights and 27 hours I arrived in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and took in my surroundings through a dazed aural migraine. Hazy visions and sunspots disturbed my first impressions of the uniformed communist-era buildings that ruled the road leading from the airport into this unofficial capital of the Transylvania region.
In the city centre I was met with traditional gothic Romanian architecture, cobbled streets, wooden gates and grapevines that curled themselves around almost every rafter. I noticed my Airbnb’s wrought iron fencing panels had small bat motifs (image 2) as the smell of freshly baked pretzels and sweet breads wafted up to the balcony from the traditional bakery in the alleyway below.
My tour guide picked me up in the afternoon and we drove around the outskirts of town. The accompanying video illustrates our circuit; passing 15th century churches and cemeteries, stretches of maize fields and ending in Gheorgheni, Györgyfalva, a 15th century village named after the revered military patron St. George. The village became a foster site between 1859-1928, with approximately 120 children of Cluj-Napoca placed here. I took in low set houses and donkeys teetering along the streets pulling wooden carts as crisp cool air marked the evening rolling in.
I documented my travels in Romania with an audio recorder as a way to revisit sites through sound. These field recordings altered my perceptions of memory and place and offered the ability to magnify/amplify a moment. Carrying my recorder through a 16th century cemetery made me value the active relationship I had with my surroundings as an attentive listener – something the nature of field recordings indoctrinates.
Cemeteries are regular destinations for avid travellers. They offer a glimpse into a city’s
history and an opportunity to gleam past the veil as spectral, shadowy guests in a
foreign land, bridging the void between the present and the past.
Hajongard Cemetery, which loosely translates to ‘Garden of Rabbits’ in English, is one of the oldest cemeteries in Cluj-Napoca. Established in the 16th century to manage the tragic impact of the bubonic plague, it spans 14 hectares of land and has a reputation as the most picturesque cemetery in Transylvania. I spent two hours exploring the eclectic array of crypts, mausoleums and graves. At the top of the hill I came across a murder of crows, who I followed around the site, recording their chatter on my audio recorder.
Salina Turda is an underground salt mine in the Durgău-Valea Sărată area of Turda in northwest Romania. It no longer functions as an active salt mine and has instead become a tourist attraction with a small indoor bowling alley, ferris wheel, paddle boats, health centre and echo chambers. Salt from the Turda site began to be extracted during the antiquity period (8th century BC - 6th century AD) and salt continued to be produced there through the middle ages. The first document that mentions the salt mine in Turda was issued by the Hungarian chancellery and dates back to 1 May 1217.
Salt is a frequently-used material within my practice and relates to its use in witchcraft. Within rituals, salt acts as a purifier and a protector. Salt circles reference a witch ritual known as Casting the Circle, a technique traditionally used as a protective barrier between the practitioner and what they are summoning. Salt, while purifying and essential to life, is also paradoxically toxic and lethal; “it enhances food, and can make it bitter; it stings and heals; it kills microbes and can destroy tissue” (Ronnberg and Martin 2010, 114). Salt is filled with these paradoxes and tensions, much like witches and the magic they yield.
While the decommissioned salt mine has been repurposed as a tourist trap, visitors are drawn to its health centre - a carved-out, brightly-lit chamber with wooden seats and glass windows that distinctly sets it apart from the rest of the mine. A plaque at the centre’s entrance suggests that the salt will aid respiratory issues, skin conditions, fatigue and stress.
Moving deeper down into the mine, the echoing bowling balls mimicked the sound of small explosions; cannon fire, fireworks, gunshots. It was only when I located the source of the sound with my own eyes that the image matched the clamour. I then came across the echo chamber - a small but deep cavity in the mine. My tour guide encouraged me to speak into the cavernous depth, to experience my own voice thrown back at me – it only felt natural to scream.
The tale of Dracula, as clarified by my guide Geta, is not considered a Romanian legend. The Irish author Bram Stoker, never visited Transylvania, and instead loosely developed his 1897 vampire fantasy on Romanian history and mythology. In fact, historians believe that Stoker’s Dracula was the first to draw a connection between Vlad III Dracula (Vlad the Impaler), who reigned over Wallachia three times between 1448-1476, and vampirism. Vlad’s reputation for cruelty spread across Europe, and while the impaling method as a form of execution was used widely throughout Europe, Vlad was notorious for exhausting it as a form of punishment.
Hundreds to thousands of people were executed at the beginning of his reign and his victims’ assets, including money and property, were seized as retainers. Geta stated that the people of the province began connecting the common expression ‘blood-thirsty’ with Vlad as he was ‘draining the life blood from the land’. This had a two-folded meaning; both in the act of slaying, and in seizing wealth.
While Stoker’s Dracula illustrates a brooding and affluent creature of the night, historians argue Stoker was largely uninformed about Vlad, only incorporating the name “Dracula” and some jumbled scraps of Romanian history into his tale.
For many, Vlad is regarded as a national hero; a tyrant but a fair ruler and true Catholic. Artists and poets celebrated him as a valiant hero, who stood as a symbol for patriotism and bravery, and protected the land from reactionary political parties and the Ottomans. His fearless image went so far as to give him supernatural powers, that served him in protecting his land from strigoi (vampire-like monsters) and other evil spirits.
And yet, Stoker’s novel transformed Vlad into the very thing he hunted - a strigoi. Strigoi in Romanian mythology bear the closest resemblance to vampire European folklore that inspired Stoker’s gothic horror. Thought to be the original ‘night slayers’, strigoi are restless, undead shape-shifters that can become invisible and gain their powers from the blood of their victims.
One poem even went so far as to call Vlad back from the dead to destroy the enemies of the Romanian nation:
You must come, O dread Impaler, confound them to your care.
Split them in two partitions, here the fools, the rascals there;
Shove them into two enclosures from the broad daylight enisle 'em,
Then set fire to the prison and the lunatic asylum.
— Excerpt from The Third Letter by Mihai Eminescu
Vlad is widely thought to have no connection to Bran Castle. It was never under his rule, nor would it have been an inviting place for him to visit. It was once believed he was imprisoned within the castle, but today historians widely dismiss this claim. Moreover, the description of Dracula’s castle in Stoker’s book bears no resemblance to Bran Castle.
Greta explained that the relationship between Bran Castle and the amalgamation of Vlad with Stoker’s Dracula was an act of reclamation for the people of Romania; a cleverly twisted tale to bring tourism to the country and repossess a tale that was familiar, but misplaced. She explained that during the communist era, the people of Romania had little knowledge or understanding of the vampire mythology Bram Stoker had conjured. Stoker’s novel, while published in 1897, only found popularity later in the 20th century when films began adapting the tale. During this time (1947-1989) the oppressive communist regime isolated Romania from western influences.
In the 1970s Romania began developing a closer relationship with the West and launched a tourist campaign that centred on taking Dracula back from the West and transporting him to Transylvania. Bran Castle was chosen as Dracula’s home due to its supposed connection (Vlad’s alleged imprisonment in the castle) and exceptional Gothic architecture. Today it draws over 800,000 tourists a year and continues to expand Romania’s economy, while exposing visitors to the true tale of Dracula.
While taking in the architecture, the mythology and the repositioning of a reclaimed history, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a quote from the Lord of the Rings; “history became legend and legend became myth”.
The sun had begun to set when I arrived at Sighișoara’s Citadel. A quick spell of sprightly rain lifted a low-lying blanket of fog that had begun to settle on the town. My tour guide, Andrei, and I were running late to see the town’s famous evangelical church on the hill, and its crypts.
He started shouting at me, enthusiastically reciting one of the many invasions Sighișoara faced, and took off running in front of me. He turned and cried out, ‘the Mongols are coming, run if you don’t want [to be] struck by burning arrows!’ I ran behind him, laughing at the ridiculousness, as the cold air stung my cheeks.
We reached the base of the church on the hill. He explained that during invasions, locals would take refuge up in the church, not because it had additional safety features, but because of their faith in God; seeking haven and protection through devotion. He again took off, making quick work of the covered staircase, a 175-step wooden stairway that led to the church, his voice echoing down the stairs, rallying me on to follow, with threats of imagined invaders gaining on me.
Exhausted from finding my quick-footing on cobbled stone, I slowly hobbled upward to the sound of a lone busker playfully serenading me with ‘Stairway to Heaven’ at the peak of the steps. I had made it, only to realise that my guide confused the opening hours of the church, which had closed an hour before our arrival. Irate and tired, I turned to face the citadel. The view breathed new life into me as the bells began to toll.
Located in the historic region of Transylvania, Sighișoara is the only medieval fortress in southeast Europe that continues to be inhabited. It has been the site of invasions, rebellions, fires, witch trials and executions. It is even believed to be Vlad the Impaler’s birthplace. Having felt guilty for missing the church and crypt tour, my tour guide treated me to an entry pass to ‘Vlad Tepes House’. Today Vlad III’s so-called birthplace exists as a restaurant and ‘museum’. Upstairs is dedicated to the museum; a kitsch haunted house that starkly and hysterically sits in opposition to the rest of the citadel.
Traveling to participate in the ‘International Conference, Images of Witchcraft: Cinema, Theatre, Visual Arts’ I expected to find myself in a scene from Roald Dahl’s Witches - gathered for the annual meeting, surrounded by witches removing gloves, wigs and shoes, guided by Anjelica Huston as our Grand High Witch who will go on to remove her entire face.
The lens I perceived my surroundings through was distorted with stirring romanticised horror. But the conference, much like my entire experience of Romania, provided a grounding and clarifying reality. Some spoke of the very real practicing witches of Romania, who are seen as royalty, and carry on the traditions of witchcraft through their bloodlines. My research on the image of the witch in India, where women are still killed for accusations of witchcraft sat as odds with the idea of a venerated openly practicing family of witches, who are paid well for their spells and potions – opening up a dialogue on how the threat of witches continues to exist and how they are represented today.
The accompanying video work Parallel Presence (2018) speaks to the tropes, theatrics and mythologies I fell in love with while in Romania and can be seen in a new context following my travels.
Dr Naomi Blacklock
The inspiring transformation of the term ‘witch’ is only occurring in a geographically limited context. The 2016 census by the Australian Bureau of Statistics detailed that 15,219 Australians verified their religion as Pagan, and 6,616 people as Wiccan (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016), while almost one million Americans identified as Wiccan or Pagan in the Pew Research Centre’s 2014 Survey (Pew Research Centre 2014, 159). However, ‘witch’ as a pejorative term and the accusation of witchcraft directed at women of colour continues to lead to acts of violence. The United Nations Women’s Rights investigators have stated that in countries including Gambia, India, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania and Uganda alleged Witches are being killed, and that these events are becoming commonplace (Evans 2009).
Little research has been dedicated to witch-hunts in India, in spite of them being a regular occurrence, and even fewer archival records detail its history. The research that has been conducted argues that while there are some similarities that can be drawn between the history of early European and the New England witch-hunts, particularly in the fear associated with witchcraft and the way women are principally targeted as witches, a cross-cultural examination indicates that the concept of magic continues to be ingrained into the fabric of Indian society (Baglari 2015, 130-136). However, it is also important to note that while speaking about magic and witchcraft in the broad sense of these terms, not everyone in India is committed to its existence.
The influence of magic and witchcraft and those that wield it is ancient. In India, it had its place in society and was believed to be beneficial as well as malevolent (Saletore 1981, 5). In the 4th century BC, guidelines, fines and punishments helped categorise what forms of witchcraft were permissible (Saletore 1981, 5). Witchcraft used to affect matters of the heart, such as relationships and love, was acceptable but if the sorcery was insidious fines ranging from 200-500 panas had to be forfeited, and in more serious cases fines were paid in limbs or at worst, death (Saletore 1981, 5). Witches also performed essential roles in royal and public life, working for kings, and teaching at universities (Saletore 1981, 6-8). Taxila, Nalanda and Vikramashila were some of the most ancient universities in the world, and teachings at the time were not concerned with the secularisation of ideas, therefore magic, science, philosophy and religion were intertwined (Saletore 1981, 8). This history and legacy of magic in India can be traced back to the four sacred Hindu Texts known as the Vedas complied between 1200-800 BC (Novak 1994, 24). Atharvaveda, one of the four Veda texts included hymns on Indian ceremonial magic (Saletore 1981, 7). It encompassed charms to ward of fever and diseases, in addition to spells to allure a lover, whereas the Rigveda Vedic text, delved into the impact of demonic spirits (Saletore 1981, 61). These diabolic beings caused natural disasters such as floods, droughts, death and famine. They took the forms of beasts and people, and are depicted with backwards facing feet (Saletore 1981, 87, 116).
While the Veda texts do not condemn women as witches as the Malleus Maleficarum did, Indian society and its patriarchal religions and customs still established a sexist culture. Bride burning, honour killings, female infanticide and witchcraft related murders are all forms of ‘femicide’, or female genocide (Kalaiyarasi 2015, 51). Arguable this has been occurring for centuries but only in recent years have authorities begun implementing strategies, policies and laws to restrain gender-based violence (Yee 2013, 1445-1446).
Witch-hunting has a long history in India (Sinha 2007, 1674) but the earliest evidence of witch-hunts in the country was only recorded in 1792 by British official John Shore, who wrote about the trialling and persecution of witches in Santhal (Sinha 2007, 1674). When the British invaded India in 1858, witch-hunting and witch styled executions in England had been prohibited for 143 years, but the belief in witches was still ripe. British official, Dr Francis Buchanan identified his opinions on witches in India by stating that, “25 children died annually through the malevolence of witches in Bhagalpur” (Sinha 2007, 1674). While French naturalist Victor Jacquemon wrote in his Letters from India (1834) "I know no country on earth where so many witches could be enlisted for Macbeth, if, instead of three, Shakespeare had wanted a hundred thousand" (Jacquemont 1834, 126). Here Jacquemon is not only writing about the prejudiced belief that Indians embody an innate mysticism, but also a partisan judgment that Indian women are grotesque in nature, by further stating that “I have never seen anywhere such hideous witches as in Kashmir. The female race is remarkably ugly” (Jacquemont 1834, 126). These beliefs of Indians and their customs as primitive and barbaric soon outweighed the European belief in witchcraft, and rapidly led to a prohibition against witch hunting as a way to ‘educate’ the population (Sinha 2007, 1674). Major Wilkinson, a political agent for the British, viewed the witch executions being carried out in India as ‘barbaric’, an ironic slur to use against India, as witch-hunting was also part of the not too distant history of Europe. Moreover, the term ‘barbaric’ is used to emphasis the division between the enlightened and educated colonisers against the primitive and savage colonised (Rattansi 2007, 31).
The ban on witch hunts in India between 1840-1850, particularly in the Singhbhum district of the Chhotanagpur did not stop witch killings, but rather escalated them (Sinha 2007, 1675). While the ban was enforced to dismantle the belief in witchcraft, the British “failed to acknowledge the degree to which the notion witchcraft was socially embedded and universally believed in as a matter of common sense” (Sinha 2007, 1674-1675). As stated earlier, very little evidence was recorded of witch-hunting; this is believed to be because the killing of witches was not understood as an immoral or illegal act (Sinha 2007, 1674). Therefore, the local Santal people believed that the ban actually endorsed witches and witchcraft to thrive, and led to a surge in witch-hunting (Sinha 2007, 1674). This unearthed history of the British rule in India is now viewed as an act of resistance against colonial rule. An example of this resistance is the Ulgylan song, a political anthem sung by the Jharkhand people that put witches, Europeans and other castes into the same category:
Oh Kill the Witch, such the poison,
Oh kill, kill
O Father, kill the Europeans, the other castes
O kill, kill (Sinha 2007, 1672-1676).
These witches of India resemble the women of Federici’s, Leeson’s and Russ’ research, where the witch, and the women persecuted for witchcraft, act as collateral damage in the conflict for social and political rule. In her 2004 book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, Silvia Federici contends that women “had been in the forefront of the heretical movements, often organising in female associations” and that this presented “a growing challenge to male authority and the Church” (2004, 184). In Federici’s reframing of history, women’s collective knowledge of healing and magic was an interconnected element of peasant culture (2004, 142). However, this position of women in society shifted when the open field system ended with the rise of capitalism (2004, 50). The subdivision, privatisation and fencing of communal land benefited the wealthy but impoverished the poor, and left women with little to no economic security (2004, 72). As capitalist relations swelled so too did the prejudice towards lower social classes, which fed into the depiction of witches as soiled female beggars (2004, 163). Federici argues that capitalism was not a progressive development as stated by Karl Marx, but that witch burning and the weakening of women and the poor were integral in the development of capitalism (2004, 12).
The perception of witches acting as collateral damage in the struggle for economic, political and social rule continues to generate new investigations and research. Recently two economists Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ argue that the witch trials reflected “non-price competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches for religious market share” (2017, 1). Here women, established by society as the weaker sex, acted as collateral damage in the struggle for religious rule. Leeson and Russ proposed that the 15th-17th century witch-hunts were most rampant where Catholic-Protestant conflict was at its peak (2017, 1). It is believed that churches selected strategic regional battlegrounds, which substantiates why Germany, the epicentre for Protestant Reformation, had the highest number of witch prosecutions in Europe with nearly 16,500 individuals trialled for witch-craft, which resulted in 6,887 deaths, totalling 38% of European witch trials (2017, 20). These researched accounts on the witch-hunt histories from Silvia Federici, Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ paint a conclusive understanding of the “witch-craze” by taking into account the historical transformations of the rise of capitalism and religious reformation against the societal imbalance of gender power.
Today women in India continue to be accused, tortured and murdered if labelled as a Daayan, a term for ‘witch’ in South Asia (Reevanya 2010, 223). The term has become so loaded that the bill Women Prevention and Protection Atrocities was passed in 2016 that now makes it illegal to call a woman a Daayan in India’s largest state Rajasthan in order to stop the defamation and killing of women (The Prevention of Witchcraft Bill 2016, s.3). According to the Central Ministry of Home Affairs, an estimated two thousand, two hundred and fifty-seven women have been killed since the year 2000 after being accused of witchcraft, with many deaths still unreported (Burke and Chaurasia 2015).
The contemporary narration of witchcraft continues to be whitewashed and appropriated without acknowledging its traditions outside of a European context. The problem goes far beyond appropriating the witch figure when women of colour are killed once their bodies become associated with magic. This paradoxical implication of women of colour suffering from the title ‘witch’, while Anglo culture appropriates and embraces it; highlights the exclusionary issues within feminist thought. African-American feminist author Audre Lorde’s essay “An Open Letter to Mary Daly” explains that female power and beliefs activated by Western history or mythology do not accomplish a universal advocacy for women everywhere (Lorde 2007, 66). The predominantly Eurocentric reciting of the history of the witch figure highlights, “the destructive forces of racism and separation between women – the assumption that the herstory and myth of white women is the legitimate and sole herstory and myth of all women to call upon for power and background” (Lorde 2007, 69). By aligning the image of the witch alongside intersectional feminist thought, the figure can be understood from multiple narratives, which includes the voices of the presently oppressed.
Although the historical witch figure is firmly anchored in our collective imaginations, the witch is a product of a construction that has changed throughout the course of history through myth, tradition and gender. Today, the witch has revolutionised from a specific figure to a collective appropriation that can offer race, sex and gender minorities strength to create, self-actualise, and politicise.
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Burke, Jason, Manoj Chaurasia. 2015. “Five Women Killed in India by Villagers Suspecting Witchcraft.” The Guardian, August 8, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/08/five-women-killed-india jharkhand villagers-suspecting-witchcraft.
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Reevanya, Vanashree. 2010. “Witchcraft Pain, Resistance and the Ceremony of Punishment Mahasweta Devi’s Bayen.” Indian Journal of Gender Studies 17 (2): 223-247. https://doi.org/10.1177/097152151001700202.
Saletore, Rajaram Narayan. 1981. Indian Witchcraft. New Dehli: Abhinav Publications.
Sinha, Shashank. 2007. “1857: Witch-hunts, Adivasis, and the Uprising in Chhotanagpur.” Economic and Political Weekly 42 (19): 1672–1676. https://www jstor-org.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/stable/4419566.
Kalaiyarasi, Ramachandran. “Violence Against Women in India”. Journal of Humanities and Social Science 20 (2): 51-55. http://www.iosrjournals.org/iosr-jhss/papers/Vol20 issue2/Version-3/H020235155.pdf.