Disability as Magic
Dolní Věstonice Venus by Petr Novák, Wikipedia
“The…disabled woman at Dolní Věstonice is mirrored by the man at Brno, who suffered from the bone disease periostitis, and also by other burials at this time, which contain individuals who were disabled in some way. If these people were singled out for special treatment (and, from their burials it is clear that they were), it was despite their terrible disabilities or perhaps even because of them. Shamans from more recent times are often disabled or are otherwise distinguished through an initiatory illness and it is possible that this attitude has roots that stretch back into the Paleolithic.” — Prehistoric Belief by Mike Williams
I wept when I read this passage the other night, still suffering deeply from an inflammatory reaction. It is nonlinear, no two days the same, any relief is temporary. Telling a story of empowerment around these embodied experiences has been essential to my work, and this passage affirms what I have been feeling and thinking for a long time. When I went back to school — briefly, I had to quit again due to complications from my disability — last year I was dreaming on writing my dissertation on disability as a path of spiritual power. My preliminary research suggests that ancient perspectives on disability were aligned in such a way.
Here are a few more examples:
Reconstruction of the burial at Hilazon Tachtit Cave in Israel Illustration by P. Groszman from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
“The so-called shaman’s burial from the Upper Palaeolithic cave site of Hilazon Tachtit (Northern District, Israel), in the southern Levant, should also be mentioned. The grave was constructed and specifically arranged for an elderly disabled woman, who was accompanied by exceptional grave offerings. The grave goods comprised 50 complete tortoise shells and selected body parts of a wild boar, an eagle, a cow, a leopard, and two martens, as well as a complete human foot (Grosman et al. 2008).”1 “Moreover, although pathologies are not universally characteristic of shamans, there are numerous cross-cultural accounts of physically disabled individuals being ascribed healing and spiritual powers (26, 27).”1
Anthropos Pavilion/Moravian Museum, Brno, Czech Republic, Wikipedia Commons
From the Mesolithic burial at Bad Dürenberg:
“The pathology of the cervical spine is said to be an indirect argument for the shamanic interpretation of the burial (Porr 2004, 292–293).”2
My interpretation of Skuld, the Norn, wearing regalia from the Bad Durremberg burial and surrounded by Old European symbolism
In addition to archaeological evidence of physical manifestations I have also found documentation of illnesses, both mental and physical, as indicators of spiritual power. This research is rough, done in accord with my own physical and mental health issues, the practices necessitated by my own disability journey. I should note that all of the authors speak to the problem of the word shaman as an all-encompassing title for spiritual leadership.
And to clarify, I think that everyone is magic.
Disability has been my invitation to deepen and expand my magic, including ancestral relationships. It has created an environment where I can’t pretend to be anything other than exactly what I am, which is, in itself, a gift.
By seeing illness as an initiatory process I have opportunity to be empowered in these transformations instead of consumed by guilt, loss and grief.
One of the intentions behind Sick Witches is to explore these initiations, to invite discourse around the intersection between disability and magic, to weave again a community of meaning behind these unique invitations.
I have a full document of rough preliminary research and more resources available for download on Patreon — linked below. : By this and every effort may the wyrd be repaired, may the balance be regained. ᚨᛚᚢ