Bridget Cleary part two: The Insult of Belief

Feb 26, 2007
Part one is here.

In writing about Bridget Cleary's death, Angela Bourke is obviously working at least partially within an anthropological tradition which tries to establish the validity of all the beliefs involved in a situation, while explaining why they were incompatible, which makes each side seem irrational to the other. To Michael Cleary, who had gone to the physician and the priest to look for help for his sick wife, and been basically turned away by each of them, an older tradition of healing would have been the only sensible option left; to the police and the magistrate, holding a sick woman over the fire and forcing her to drink medicines of herbs boiled in milk would have only looked like torture. Unfortunately, Bourke doesn't quite manage to be as even-handed as she might have liked: while she is generous towards the fairy beliefs of the townspeople, she doesn't seem to be sympathetic to it, and in fact gives the impression that she doesn't think they really believed in fairies at all.

It's a problem I had with plenty of my anthro classes (though not, to her credit, with the professor teaching them), that while we were expected to treat all beliefs fairly and with as much objectivity as possible, there was always this undercurrent of "but we know their magic doesn't really work; we know they're just justifying it to themselves when it doesn't; we know better, because we are the scientists." Bourke's book is particularly blatant about this, especially when discussing why people might participate in fairy exorcisms even if they don't believe in fairies (she actually states early on that she isn't sure that anyone ever truly believed in fairies or the supernatural, which is pretty drastic even for a skeptic to claim). She talks about how such rituals are acts of social condemnation, reinforcing ideas of conformity and "keeping in one's place;" and while it's true that lots of communal rituals and beliefs, particularly those dealing with creatures or people who live on the boundaries of things, do serve a social function like that, it's stretching it quite a bit to say that anyone was acting out these rituals with only that in mind -- putting an uppity woman in her place -- while not really believing in any of the supernatural elements.

There's a passage toward the end of the book where Bourke talks about how the case was discussed in official police documents, and how the word "superstition" was thrown around. When used between equals, she says, "superstition" can explain away personal quirks and beliefs we don't necessarily share with one another, but when used from a person with power against someone without, it's an insult, and frequently dehumanizing -- "they're so stupid they don't even know that fairies don't exist; obviously we shouldn't let them govern themselves." In her eagerness to disassociate herself from this position, though, Bourke seems to go too far in the other direction, as though she thinks that saying they believed in fairies would be an insult, when of course it's the attitude one takes towards their belief in fairies that makes it insulting or not.

As to Bridget Cleary's death, Bourke eventually says that she doesn't believe that it was malicious, that Michael Cleary merely snapped under the strain of his wife's illness and the attitude of the villagers toward them (they were not well integrated into the local society, for a number of reasons I've glossed over in order to not make this any insanely longer than it already is) and fell back on an older pattern of belief. Even with just the evidence prevented in this book, and apparently this is a case that has been written on extensively, I can't agree. Firstly, I find it interesting that Bridget's death actually occurred after the ritual of the exorcism was over, when Bridget's health was improving and everyone else who had been participating was getting back to normal. Also, as Bourke points out through the book, of all the people involved Michael Cleary was the most modern, the most literate, the least likely to retain what was considered an old-fashioned and dangerous form of belief. It looks to me much more like a man taking the opportunity presented to him by others, particularly the fairy doctor who seems to have been the first to suggest a changeling, to find an excuse to murder his wife.

Reading this book gave me one of what I call my "worldview instances:" moments in time when I realize just how differently I look at the world than whoever I'm talking with or reading from. Not so much involving the murder case itself -- although I did disagree with Bourke's reading of the evidence -- but in her general assumptions about mystical belief. Bourke really does seem to feel that saying that these people took action on a real person because they believed in fairies, an Otherworld, and in changelings would be insulting and demeaning to them. She comes, really, from the same basic assumptions as the colonial administrators who thought that belief in fairies showed signs of a childish mind: belief in magic is childish, but these people were rational adults, therefore they could not have believed in magic, her train of thought seems to go. I'd like to say this train of thought is unusual in anthropology, but I think it's just more blatant here than elsewhere. It's one of the reasons I find myself reluctant to look at graduate schools in anthropology. I'm pretty sure searching for a department based on "is not atheist to the point of religious intolerance" would be more than a little difficult.

Book Review: The Burning of Bridget Cleary

Feb 25, 2007
I've finally started to get to work on my amazingly long to-read list, and yesterday morning I finished up The Burning of Bridget Cleary, an immensely complicated book by Angela Bourke about an immensely complicated situation in an immensely complicated time. (Please, don't let that sound as if it's hard to read: it's delightful, particularly if you like social history. But there are a lot of threads going through this narrative, and it hasn't got easy answers.)

Even the original story itself isn't all that straightforward, partially because of the layers of interpretation that get built into it. At the turn of the twentieth century, in Co. Tipperary in Ireland, a young woman named Bridget Cleary fell ill, possibly with pneumonia, and suffered for about a week and a half before her husband, who had become convinced that the dying woman in his house was not his wife but a fairy changeling left in her place, organized a ritual to drive the changeling out. Almost a dozen people were involved, including a fairy doctor from the region and friends and relations of the couple, and most of those people seem to have participated in questioning the woman (she was asked to swear her identity three times, on two separate occasions) and in holding her over the grate of the fire to drive out the fairy. The next day she seemed to be improving, got out of bed and dressed herself for the first time in over a week, but after an argument with her husband, with most of the previous days' participants still in the house, he became enraged, threw her down on the floor and threatened her with a burning stick from the fireplace, and finally threw paraffin oil on her and burned her alive. He buried the body in a bog nearby and told his friends that he would be waiting at the fairy hill with a black-handled knife to cut his wife's bonds and bring her back from the fairies. He served fifteen years with hard labor for murder, and most of the others served somewhat shorter sentences as accessories to.

Bourke takes this incident and ties it into the changing cultural landscape that was Ireland at the time -- one of a long series of Home Rule bills moving through Parliament; tensions between laborers, tenant farmers and landlords still high after the recent Land War; colonial and Victorian rationalist rhetoric in opposition to the local and Catholic ideals of much of the population; and, of course, the long, slow death of the pre-literate Irish oral culture that the fairy belief seems to have come from. (One problem, of course, with discussing the origin of these beliefs is the simultaneous Irish Renaissance, in which Yeats and Lady Gregory were making fairies popular again. The oral culture which does still exist has assimilated a lot of the later material, too, and it's almost impossible to tell what is genuinely ancient or pre-literate and what comes from a later, more romanticized origin.)

The first thing that struck me about this was its similarity to an exorcism case in Wisconsin we discussed in one of my anthro classes when it happened -- an 8-year-old autistic boy named Terrence Cottrell died during an attempt led by a local minister and some of the parishioners and his family to drive the demons out of him. And I have to admit, I found it easier to consider Bridget Cleary's death in a more sympathetic way, a function of my own biases. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that deaths caused by religious practices shouldn't be prosecuted as murder -- only that the fundamental difference in worldview between the religious practitioners and the law is important, and ought to be looked at.

The second thing this reminded me of was the fate of the attempted regicide Damiens in 1757. (No, wait, there's a connection, I swear.) Foucault gives a rather grotesque description of the punishment for regicide in the decades just before the French Revolution; I'll spare you the gory details (though they're in Discipline and Punish if you really want them), but basically, he was drawn and quartered, badly; pulled with pincers; hacked to pieces; and finally burned. It was an insane amount of overkill, even for people who wanted to make an example. And that was what they were doing, of course: no one had been drawn and quartered in decades, possibly centuries, because a more modern form of law-enforcement made it easier to punish more criminals more leniently than a few criminals more strictly, as used to be done. But the possibility that someone might try to kill the king was so frightening that the establishment reacted by reaching into their past for the most socially condemning punishment they could find, even if they didn't quite know how to go about it. Even in the days when people were drawn and quartered, Damiens' death would have been considered grotesque.

Bourke tells us that, although changeling belief has been recorded in Ireland since such records were kept, very few deaths were ever recorded as consequences of trying to get rid of changelings, and Bridget Cleary is the only adult ever recorded to have died from a fairy exorcism. Bourke doesn't make much of this point, but I think it's key to her entire argument. When the old order runs up against the new, something has to happen, and it's usually when worldviews are dying out that they become their most damaging. When a belief is common, it doesn't need to be reinforced in order to be effective: it stands on its own. When a belief is dying out (like a belief in changelings, or a belief in the moral necessity and superiority of a king) it needs that extra power of blood and death in order to really stick. To say that Bridget Cleary's death is a result of fairy belief isn't an insult to people who believe in fairies, it just shows how beliefs were changing at the time and to what degree they were coming under stress from Victorian rationalism.

For all her attempts to treat the fairy beliefs with respect, Bourke ultimately comes down against them, more often implying that no one actually believed that they were driving a changeling out of Bridget Cleary's place. But this stance seems to me to be even more disrespectful: while I can understand (if not condone) torturing a changeling to force it to reveal itself, I have a harder time with the idea that nearly a dozen people tortured a woman in order to impress social conformity upon her.

And now this post is getting ridiculously long, so it will conclude (with more of the meat of the point I wanted to make) tomorrow.

Religious Insomnia

Feb 24, 2007
At nearly two in the morning, in the middle of a blizzard, after reading some very challenging things entirely too late in the evening, I think I've managed my very first round of religious-anxiety-induced-insomnia.

Questions keep chasing themselves around in my brain. Am I for real? Do I really believe all this? Am I the only one; is my religion really horribly passe and everyone else has moved past it into something more "mature"? Am I really just a fluffy bunny at heart (and is that just a word we use when we're too attatched to our scientific viewpoint to give it up) (and who am I to be dismissing a scientific viewpoint, anyway)? Am I turning into some kind of mad Pagan fundamentalist who other people look at with a combination of awe and surprise and oh-my-god-sane-people-aren't-like-that-are-they?

Does it really matter what anybody else thinks? (Of course it does. And of course it doesn't.) Am I really just doing this to watch what other people do? Do I really believe any of it myself even, or is this all some kind of grand wish-fulfillment that comes of reading too many fantasy novels as a preteen? And what's so wrong with that, anyway? Why do we all have to take ourselves so seriously all the time?

Rinse. Cycle. Repeat.

I read somewhere once that skepticism and self-doubt are a sign you're doing magic right, that it's just your empirical training kicking in in self-defense, which seems a little pat to me. And I read somewhere else once -- it was Harlan Ellison, I'm sure -- that you never like the people who make you ask real questions. Which is true. I don't like anything about this right now.

To Flourish

Feb 14, 2007
I normally don't put much stock in astrology -- not that I'm skeptical about it, at least not more than most things, it's just not really my thing -- but I am a firm believer in Mercury retrogrades. Most people seem to hate them, turning inward-looking and trying to avoid starting projects, especially communication-based projects, because Mercury retrograde is supposed to make communication go haywire.

But me? I always feel full of motivation in a Mercury retrograde period. I start things, I finish things (an astonishing task for me) and I feel my writing become much more eloquent and easier to construct. Maybe it's because I usually feel no fear about communicating: not only do I love to write, I also love public speaking, a real rarity. Maybe it's because I tend to have a very good relationship with the gods of communication (Mercury himself's a little haughty for me, but Ogma seems to enjoy my current job enough to stop by from time to time). Maybe it's because I was born in a Mercury retrograde, so this is just my natural state of being. I don't care why; I'm just happy that time of year has come round again.

Of course, other people feel differently -- you have my sincere sympathy if this period is going to be hard for you. But forewarned is forearmed, and all that.

Happy Global Warming Season

Feb 5, 2007
The Witchvox description of Imbolg seems pretty typical, so I'll use it as our example for the day --

The earliest whisperings of Springtide are heard now as the Goddess nurtures Her Young Son. As a time of the year associated with beginning growth, Imbolc is an initiatory period for many. Here we plant the "seeds" of our hopes and dreams for the coming summer months.

And I and our current twelve below windchill have this to say about that -- "earliest whisperings of Springtide" my arse.

Normally I would take this opportunity to yammer on delightedly about the origins of these festival dates and associations, and how insane it is to take what are obviously, ancient or modern in origin, seasonal festivals and celebrate them on fixed dates when what is first spring in the UK is most definitely not first spring in southern Wisconsin; about how when I was in Ireland I finally realized that the date of Imbolg is appropriate after all when I went to the edge of the city and saw the new lambs playing in fields that were green and not covered in snow; about what this means about modern Paganism and if we really qualify as nature-based at all if we're going to do things like this and if the community-building you get from having formalized dates is a decent tradeoff for having holidays that make no sense.

But this unbelievably frigid Imbolg came after an equally unbelievably warm Yule, and a January with the second-latest freeze dates in recorded history for Madison's two lakes, and the implication of global warming continues to gnaw at my brain. (Not that I'm alone. After all, Al Gore got nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for giving us all this entirely justifiable paranoia.) I found I couldn't enjoy the unseasonably warm weather earlier, and I hate the arctic blast even more, knowing that they are both probably symptoms of something much, much more wrong.

I have a hard time getting activist about global warming, not because I don't think it's important, but because it freaks me out so much. If I think about it for too long I fall into a strange spiralling paranoia about the state of the planet and the nature of humanity, and frankly it's much easier for me just to take the bus to work and call that enough. Some days I tell myself every little bit helps and it seems like it's true, and some days I tell myself every little bit helps and it seems like an excuse.

Even so...even so, Imbolg is that time of year when leaving work no longer means walking into the pitch darkness of midwinter, and that isn't spring, but it's something. Happy Imbolg, everyone. Spring won't make everything better, but it might make it easier to bear, and maybe then we can figure out what to do about it all.