The White Carpathian Mountains, straddling the border of Moravia and Slovakia, are one of the most beautiful and rural parts of the Czech Republic. Towns are few and far between and for centuries local people would take their aches and pains to old women renowned in the region for their special healing powers. They were known as “goddesses” and passed their knowledge from generation to generation. But Czechoslovakia’s post-war communist rulers saw the world these women represented as a threat and within two generations they were wiped out. Their tragic story is the subject of the excellent novel “Žítková Goddesses” by the young Moravian writer Kateřina Tučková. David Vaughan meets her.
Kateřina Tučková is a writer known for her attention to historical detail. Her previous award-winning novel, “The Expulsion of Gerta Schnirch”, mapped the fate of German-speaking civilians driven out of Brno just after the end of World War Two. “Žítková Goddesses” – Žítkovské bohyně – which was published last year, also benefits from meticulous background research, but without ever becoming swamped in detail. Despite its subject matter, looking at the ancient Moravian tradition of folk healing, the novel is not in the slightest bit esoteric or nostalgic. Instead it maps with surgical precision the persecution of the old women known as the Žítková Goddesses. At times Tučková recreates the pseudo-scientific language of the secret police reports, reminding us just how far the regime was prepared to go in persecuting those it saw as different. I met Kateřina Tučková to talk about the book.
“It was a way to my roots, because I am from Moravia. In 2006 I was looking for a topic for a new book and my friend the historian David Kovářík, who is also an ethnologist, told me about the Žítková Goddesses and everything that happened around them during the communist regime.”
Tell me something about the “goddesses” and this particular tradition.
“People believed that they were something like a shaman. They knew a lot about herbal treatment, they knew how to deal with psychological problems and they also knew how to influence the weather, to do love magic and even black magic. And their abilities were given to them by God. That’s why they were called goddesses – bohyně in Czech.”
As we find out in the book, they also have their assistants or apprentices, called “angels”.
“Yes, there are also angels – ‘andzjel’ in dialect. They were usually children, who led the people from Starý Hrozenkov, the main town in the region, to the mountains. Žítková is a very small village on the top of the mountains. The angels would usually wait in Starý Hrozenkov, and they would ask the clients where they were from and what was their problem, and the clients would talk to the child because they thought it didn’t matter what they said to a child. But then the angel would come quickly to the house of the goddess and tell her what he had found out from the client. So it was a very clever process.”
So it was a way of cheating, in a sense, and presumably also a way of making sure that anyone who wanted to harm the goddess didn’t get too close to her.
“It was cheating a bit, but it was also something like a placebo, which helped the client believe in the goddess’s power. And when the goddesses knew a lot about the client and he didn’t know how it is possible, then he believed more in the process of care and treatment. In the end I guess it was a good thing.”
And this was a tradition that went back generations – literally for centuries.
“It did. Ethnologists and anthropologists say that this special knowledge went back to Slavonic times, so it really was a very old art.”
So you’re talking about something that goes way back to early medieval times.
“Yes. Also in the 17th century there were witches’ trials in Moravia and two of the goddesses were killed during these trials. Also in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century the goddesses had problems with local priests. And then in the Nazi period witches were studied by the SS Hexensonderkommando [Special Witch Commando]. The Sonderkommando was founded by Heinrich Himmler who wanted to find out esoteric things about German woman priests.”
It sounds diabolical!
“Yes. It’s not my fantasy. It’s a real commando that existed. It was founded in 1934 and finished in 1944, and during these ten years they really researched everything about witches’ trials, they found a lot of documents in archives. It was very important for Nazi propaganda. They told German women that the witches were in fact German woman priests.”
So, paradoxically, the Nazis supported the witches…
“Yes, because for them it was the proof that Old German tribes lived throughout Europe. So the relics found in the Czech Republic were important for them because of geography.”
It seems insane, seeing these old women in rural Moravia as a remnant of some kind of great pagan Teutonic culture…
“It sounds really like a fantasy, but the big archives of the SS Hexensonderkommando are in Poznań in Poland and you can go there to this day.”
And presumably it was also a source for you in your own research.
“Yes, it was a very important source for me, and also other archives in the Czech Republic.”
I’d like to talk about that, because one thing that is fascinating in your book is the way that it looks in detail at how the goddesses were seen between the 1950s and the 1980s, after the communists came to power. It’s deeply shocking because there was a systematic campaign to wipe out any remnants of what were seen as unsocialist, unscientific medical practices or superstitions.
“Yes, it’s the saddest part of the history of the goddesses, because during communism they were persecuted and investigated by the secret service and the last of the really important goddesses was put into a psychiatric clinic because the communist regime wanted to get rid of her. And she died there, which is a really sad part of this history. That’s also why the younger generation has no chance to get deep knowledge about the goddesses’ art.”
One of the things that I find very gripping in the book is the way that you use the secret police archives. You have a lot of letters and files from the archives, which I understand are fiction, but are very closely based on your own research in the archives. Through one particular example, we see the way that the secret police tried systematically to make the life of the goddesses impossible. They constantly justify what they are doing by saying that they want to create scientific socialism, a better future.
“Yes, it’s terrible how the communist regime saw people who were different as a problem which needs to be removed from the whole of society, because today we see it as a rich tradition which is absolutely great. But unfortunately it is lost.”
Tell me about how you went about piecing this story together.
“I visited old people who have their own experiences with the goddesses and I worked with witnesses, with people’s memories. Then I went to archives and tried to find out something about the whole society, and so on. And finally, my fantasy made the whole story from it.”
You have a central character called Dora, who is researching partly into her own childhood, but also into the life of the goddess Surmena, who played a central role in her life.
“Dora is the niece of Surmena and lived with her until she was fourteen years old. Then she moved out of the White Carpathians and became an ethnologist. So she’s able to reflect the reality with the theory.”
The book also has elements of a detective story. Right at the beginning we have a horrible scene, where Dora comes home with Surmena to find her mother dead – in a pool of blood. The event isn’t explained and as you read the book, you carry it with you.
“It’s explained in the last part of the book and here we have something in which the people of the White Carpathians believed. The name of this in Czech is ‘kletba’ – a curse. So the explanation in the end is a curse.”
…Dora darts through the hall. At the door to the room she crashes into Surmena. The never-ending split second of her last small step, which sends her between Surmena’s flank and the doorframe and ends with her gaze fixed to the wooden floor. Lying next to Dad’s legs is Mum with her skirt rolled up over her thighs, and around her – all around her – a pool of dark, dried blood. Silence. And the three of them in the doorway like statues.
Trans.: Andrew Oakland
A great deal has been written about the communist period, but one of the things I like about this book is that it takes the period from a completely different angle. It is amazing the amount of energy that the secret police devotes to an old lady who is illiterate, living on the margins of society, in the most rural part of the Czech Republic. But still they see someone like that as a real threat.
“It sounds crazy, but in fact the goddesses were very important for society, even if they were old and illiterate, but they were a central person for the community in the mountains. They could help everyone who came, and, as my witnesses told me, they were very clever and their help really did help!”
This novel has been written about and talked about a lot in this country. Where do you go from here?
“It’s a bit secret, because I had a very interesting topic also, but I talked and talked about it so much that I don’t want to talk about it any more before I start to write!”
But one thing that you can talk about is whether our English-speaking listeners will have the chance to read anything that you’ve written in English translation.
“Yes, fortunately the book is being translated by Andrew Oakland, because they plan to make a movie about the Žítková Goddesses. The translation will be in an electronic version on the internet. But we are searching for a publisher. The good news is that it will be published in five languages. One of them is German, which is a very important step for Czech literature, so maybe after the German edition there will also be an English edition published.”