The charm of knowledge
When we think of knowledge, we think of results, analyses, and answers – temporality, volatility, and experience rarely come to mind. We have built an image of knowledge as something palpable and comprehensible, something separated from the system and other research fields. Yet it is fluidity, unawareness, and the nature of events that remain a mystery we want to delve into.
Fluidity, however, has no tangible value and has little to do with productiveness and civilisation. To be fluid is to neglect time and instant profit, and to value understanding and empathy instead. Fluidity is an ephemeral quality, constantly floating, fading and shapeshifting. Its inexplicable charm creates an emotional bond that has been both inspiring and frightening us for ages.
The archaic Polish word for forest – uroczysko – is closely related to the term for ‘magic spell’. The mysterious powers of the woods were reflected in language. The etymology of the Polish term for a witch, wiedźma, is equally enchanting: a woman residing on the border of civilisation and nature was literally ‘the one who knows’.
To be under a charm – there is an ambiguity in the expression as it can be both good and evil. How were self-sufficiency, solidarity, and generational knowledge perceived in the past? How do they shape our language and attitude today? What can we say about the archetypes of the Great Mother, Baba Yaga, and the evil stepmother? How come that the forces that influence us remain under the surface?
Dorota Stępniak, the curator, and Agnieszka Bar, the designer, closely inspect many qualities of glass: its fragility, durability, softness, and transparency. It is a starting point for an extraordinary story about wisdom, maturity, and the relationship between civilisation and nature. 'The Charm of knowledge' is an exhibition that examines the importance of women, but also the balance between data, experience, and the ecosystem. It is a story about resource management and a path to better understanding of ourselves so that we can build meaningful relationships.
“What I know comes from experience.
What I know changes my perception.
Sometimes I am afraid to know…”
Youth is a time of establishing meanings and shaping one’s own identity. It is distinguished by a desire to find one’s place in society, and the need to spread wings at the same time.
In our youth, we are protected from the outside world; our problems are downplayed and we are shielded from inconvenient knowledge. In the past, we were surrounded by the cult of young bodies and charming innocence, today we observe its decline in favour of naturalness and knowledge.
‘Kobieta’ (woman) is one of the most mysterious words in the Polish dictionary as it doesn’t appear in other Slavic languages, and in Polish it emerged only in the 15th century. From the beginning, the term was considered offensive or at least disrespectful.
In Proto-Slavic there was a noun ‘people’, resulting from a greater need for the plural than for the singular, and words from determining the sex: husband and wife (mžь, žena). In the 15th century, the word ‘man’ (mężczyzna) replaced ‘husband’ to represent the collective of husbands. The word żeńszczyzna (from the Indo-European gen – to give birth) began to denote a group of women but disappeared after two centuries.
In a dictionary from 1927, etymologist A. Brückner derives kobieta from koba (mare) or kob (pigsty) and assigns it an offensive meaning, as well as immoral thoughts. F. Sławski (1952-1982) and K. Długosz-Kurczabowa (2008) suggest the native etymology from the Proto-Slavic kobь (ornithomancy) and vĕta (fairy). They also mention old High German gambetta (concubine), Finnish kabe or Estonian kave – a female. Fortune telling didn’t refer to the noble state.
This is the context for reading a quotation from M. Bielski’s Feminine Sejm (1586), where a noble wife complains that in the absence of husbands, they (woman) have to debate on the Republic of Poland: “men call us women for our greater disgrace”. For this noblewoman ‘women’ sound like peasants and maids.
All versions of Snow White since 1819 begin with a description of the queen dying in childbirth, whereas the 1812 version describes her as jealous of her daughter. In the 1840 edition of Hansel and Gretel, a mother who encourages the father to abandon their children becomes a stepmother.
The change introduced by the Brothers Grimm may have been due to the high perinatal mortality rate at the time and a far more common role of a surrogate mother than today. However, many researchers emphasise that the image of a bad mother (originally taken from folk tales) could have been a problem for the pro-family values promoted at that time.
In this context, it is interesting that the stepmother, although having power over the young girls, is eventually defeated by the man (thus becoming part of a patriarchal literary tradition that weakens the image of influential and dominant women, presenting them as malicious and associated with witchcraft and cannibalism).
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that the voice of the mirror that haunts the stepmother can be perceived as the voice of the husband who “determines the queen’s self-esteem”.
The most spectacular and, at the same time, the most fragile part of the installation is an allegory of courageous youth that goes beyond the limits of existing meanings.
The transition between youth and adulthood is a period when we realise the meaning of responsibility both for ourselves and for our loved ones. Today, we are bolder to include nature under the “loved ones” label.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”. Whereas Eve was created from Adam’s
rib, some accounts hold that Lilith was the woman implied in Genesis (1:27) and was made from the same soil as Adam.
Lilith had abandoned Adam and the perfection of the Garden of Eden, boldly refusing to submit to her husband. The three angels tried in vain to make
The cult of Lilith survived among some Jews until the 7th century AD. In rabbinic literature, Lilith is portrayed as the mother of Adam’s demonic
offspring after his separation from Eve, or as his first wife. In some mythologies, her demonic offspring was begotten by archangel Samael and is
sometimes identified as incubus and succubus. Wearing amulets with some angels’ names was supposed to protect children and women during
childbirth from the evil she threatened them with.
Baba Yaga is known as the one who snatches people wandering in the woods and eats them; meanwhile, leaning over the cauldron and surrounded by
magical objects, she is like the Goddess leading the youth through initiation. Visiting her means we cease to be children and become adults.
Baba Yaga is a Goddess who lives far from people and culture – because her role is to release what is wild and unnamed in us. She awakened natural
instincts, opened young people to the temptations of their bodies, could talk to wild animals and move smoothly between the world of humans and
animals. By mixing in her cauldron, she changes forms of things, combines herbs, makes potions, heals, and puts you into a trance. Something dies with
her so that something new one can be born.
According to Professor Zygmunt Krzak from the Institute of Archeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Baba Yaga we know today is
the product of actions against old beliefs: “It is about the disgusted figure of the former goddess created by male religious and secular elites, and about
fighting the matriarchal religion”.
The etymology of the word ‘yaga’ derives from the Proto-Slavic (j)ęga (Polish jędza), meaning torment, horror, and dangerous.
The corrugated glass symbolises the relationship between the private and the social. It refers to the internal struggle between wanting to be part of society and determining your own identity.
Over the years, we learn by gathering experience and discovering the cracks that the outside world causes in us.
Even though we begin to understand, nothing is clear, or possible to catalogue anymore. Meanings start to overlap. In the past, experiences were supposed to make
up one, coherent story. Today, recognising the paths and drawing conclusions from it becomes the key to personal fulfilment.
Hildegard from Bingen (1098-1179)
Hidegard, the patron saint of Esperanto, linguists and scientists, referred to herself as “uneducated and incapable of biblical exegesis”. This gave credibility to the thesis that her writings and music came from visions, which allowed her to speak in places inaccessible to women at that time.
In her medicinal and scientific writings, Hildegard doesn’t refer to divine authority (though these works don’t contradict her visions). Researchers say her teachings derived primarily from her experience in helping in the monastery’s herbal garden and infirmary, as well as from theoretical information she learnt in the monastery’s library. While gaining practical skills in diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment, she became an advocate of a holistic approach to therapy.
Hildegard catalogued her theory and practice in two volumes. The first, Physica, contains nine books that describe the scientific and healing properties of various plants, stones, fish, reptiles, and animals. The second, Causae et Curae, comprising almost three hundred chapters, is an analysis of the human body, its diseases, cures, and its connections to the rest of the natural world. She went down in history as a visionary, mystic, healer and religious reformer, and is considered one of the first music composers. In 2012, she was the fourth woman to be declared a Doctor of the Church.
Until the late 15th century, botanists created Gardens of Health, i.e. studies of ancient texts in the form of alphabetical plant sets with descriptions of their medical uses. A breakthrough in natural sciences came in the 16th century and resulted in Herbaria – texts enriched with illustrations.
The first documented herbarium was created in Italy by Luca Ghini, who was the precursor of the botanical gardens in Pisa (in 1543) and two years later in Padua. Both were associated with universities and used in teaching – just like Herbaria. What drove the development of botany was the new plant species that reached Europe following the great geographical discoveries. Keeping the plants alive during sea voyages was almost impossible, so drawings and dried specimens became the only way to transport them to Europe. A herbarium was also a way to show off one’s wealth. British physician, botanist and collector Hans Sloane (1660-1753) created one of the largest herbaria of the era, comprising 265 volumes. Most of his collection survived, becoming the foundation of the British Museum.
Frozen glass and hand-engraved scratches on the dome symbolise the uniqueness of our experiences and of the stories that make us. It is the artist’s manual intervention that makes the glass unique and increases the value of the object.
Intuition comes from our nature. It is the whisper of our inner voice.
Called the sixth sense, intuition allows us to make decisions by reasoning on a higher, non-verbal level of abstraction. This inner whisper learns from our experiences and subconscious observation of the world around us. Looked down upon and suppressed in the past, intuition is now perceived as an asset of creative people.
According to Polish Scientific Publishers PWN:
1. coll. an ugly, quarrelsome woman, also as an insult.
2. See also hag (1. in old folk beliefs: a woman subject to devil’s influence, able to cast spells; 2. coll. an old, ugly, malicious woman).
According to ethnographic sources: “The one who knows”.
A witch/hag is an independent woman who lives on the border of two worlds – nature and civilization. Her knowledge of plants, animals, and medicine, as well as the ability to read human behaviour, which was a result of rituals and observations passed down from generation to generation, inspired widespread respect and admiration. In Pomerania and Kujawy sorcerers were referred to by many regional names including phantoms and folk healers, while in the Chełmno region they were simply called the wise women. As Christianity and the crusade against old beliefs developed, the view was spread that women’s wisdom isn’t the result of years of experience, but a deal with the devil to whom she sells her body – because where else could she have gained such knowledge?
The Witch Hammer
The book by the Catholic clergyman H. Kramer (first published in 1486) is the best-known treatise on witchcraft. The Hammer elevates sorcery to the status of heresy and recommends that secular courts treat it as such. This is when witches lose their position and become “Satan’s puppets”.
Some scholars have suggested that after unsuccessful attempts to combat witchcraft in Tyrol, Kramer demanded that Pope Innocent VIII explicitly authorises him to prosecute them – and received the Summis desiderantes impactibus papal bull in 1484. Kremer suggests torture to obtain confessions, followed by death penalty as a remedy against the evils of witchcraft. At the time of the publication, heretics were punished by being burnt alive. Witchcraft had long been prohibited by the Church, as written about AD 900 in Canon Episcopi. It claimed that witchcraft and magic were illusions and that those who believe in them “have been seduced by the Devil in dreams and visions”. Before 1400 however, hardly anyone was persecuted for witchcraft. On the contrary, in the 15th century witches were commonly accepted in European societies. However, the Hammer was later read at royal courts and contributed to the brutal prosecution of witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries. The most severe persecution took place in 1560-1630 and lasted in Europe until around 1780.
Alchemy was accepted by the Church, and alchemists were very religious, as evidenced by the quotations from the Bible used in their works. It was even a topic for reflection for St. Thomas Aquinas, one of Doctors of the Church, who eventually approved of it.
In Europe, alchemy developed from the 12th century, initially in part of the Iberian Peninsula inhabited by the Arabs until 1492. Thanks to the schools established there, orders – the then European intellectual centres – became acquainted with the topic, came into possession of Arab alchemical treatises, and later translated them into Latin. Alchemy was dealt with by such eminent medieval figures as Albert the Great and Roger Bacon, as well as popes Clement IV
and John XXII – who, in order to maintain the alchemical art pure – issued a bull in 1317 directed against the alchemists who falsified coins. In the 16th century, alchemy became an entertainment for the wealthy and was in the spotlight of the largest European courts. Rudolf II Habsburg almost squandered his fortune by making Prague the then capital of alchemy. Sigismund II Augustus maintained contact with both alchemists and astrologers, while Stephen Báthory and Sigismund III Vasa had alchemy workshops at their courts.
The installation’s central element, Obsidian, is a naturally occurring volcanic glass formed when lava from a volcano cools rapidly. Thanks to its sharp and hard edges, it was commonly used in various Stone Age cultures as a first tool and first decoration.
The Aztecs and Mayans highly valued obsidian and used it both as a material for blades and mirrors. It is believed to absorb negative energy and provide deep healing to the soul by clarifying emotions.
Knowledge is independent of the senses, and concerns facts and absolute truths.
Knowledge is perceived as a collection of reliable information, organised into separate domains. Today, the courage to say “I don’t know” is almost as valued as the previously respected “I know”. Nowadays knowledge more and more often accepts variability, as well as notices fluidity and interpenetration of domains in the systemic context.
The reason why Hammer of witches could reach a wide European audience of the late 15th and early 16th centuries was the invention of the printing press in the
mid-15th century. For nearly 230 years (until 1678), it remained one of the two most popular books, ranking second after the Bible.
In the years 1487-1520 twenty editions of Malleus Maleficarum were published, while another sixteen followed in the years 1574-1669. The Hammer was accepted by Catholics and Protestants as an authoritative source of information on Satanism and a guide in defence of Christians. The invention of printing some thirty years before the first publication of Heinrich Kramer’s book sparked the fervour of the witch hunt, and in the words of J.B. Russell, “the witchcraft hysteria that swept across Europe was the first evidence that Gutenberg did not free man from original sin”.
“Everything I know I learned from witches,” the father of modern medicine, Paracelsus (1493-1541), once confessed.
After the 11th century, the so-called monastic medicine emerged alongside folk medicine, prompted by the development of monastic orders. The literate monks had
access to works dating back to the times of Hippocrates and Galen. When medicine was introduced to universities in the 13th century, women were excluded from advanced medical training. A licensed physician was obliged to take religious vows—women were not eligible for the practice. According to Danuta Kowalewska, as university-trained medical practitioners emerged, female herbalists and midwives had to be eliminated from the market—thus the extermination of witches began. Monks wanted to monopolise herbalism. Contemporary anatomical terminology still describes female bodies using terms of patriarchal origi.
Standard = male. The recommended room temperature was established based on the male body parameters—it is therefore too low for women who have a slower metabolism. In a car designed using the male body as a standard a woman is 50% more likely to be seriously injured in case of a crash.
Google’s speech-recognition software recognizes male speech 70% faster as it was created basing on male speech. In Sweden, clearing snow-covered roads was prioritised before clearing walkways until research showed that pedestrians are three times more likely to be injured than drivers—and 70% of the injured were women. We associate technology with innovation, yet algorithms have a tendency to reinforce the status quo, ignoring women’s needs.
The lack of data on women’s needs and health, the way they use infrastructure and services and function on the job market leads to systemic discrimination in all areas of life. Women were the first programmers—they worked as human ‘computers’ that did very complex calculations for the army during World War II. Currently women constitute only 11% of programmers, 25% of Silicon Valley employees and 7% of partners in venture capital companies. The book Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez describes the gendered data surrounding us in more detail.
The transparent part of the bowl is a symbol of knowledge. It is an illusory layer of information that extends over wisdom.
Wisdom is a liquid combination of knowledge, experience and our intuition.
There is wisdom in balanced resource management, empathetic listening, and careful judgment.
Civilization of the Goddess
Using her expertise in mythology and linguistic, Marija Gimbutas discovered a prehistoric Old Europe civilization that affirmed life and worshipped the Goddess. The scholar’s visionary theory challenged contemporary norms and influenced generations of scholars, feminists, and social thinkers.
Gimbutas became famous for her three last books: The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1974), The Language of the Goddess (1989) and The Civilization of the Goddess (1991). Based on documented archeological findings, the works presented her conclusions about the Civilization of the Goddess and Neolithic cultures in Europe. Gimbutas discussed the distinction between the Old European system she considered gynocentric, i.e. women- and goddess-centred, and the Bronze Age Indo-European patriarchal (androcratic) culture which replaced it. According to the scholar, the gynocentric (matristic) societies were characterized by peace, economic equality, and a reverence for women. The male-dominated Kurgan peoples invaded Europe, forcing its native inhabitants to accept the hierarchical rule of male warriors. Even though Gimbutas’s work on the Bronze Age and the Kurgan peoples hypothesis was widely appreciated, mainstream archeology rejected her theories about the Civilization of the Goddess. Following the scholar’s death, more and more of her hypotheses have gained recognition thanks to contemporary science.
Françoise d’Eaubonne believed patriarchy and male dominance to be responsible for environmental degradation. She recognised that the destruction of the environment is caused by the overexploitation of natural resources and warned the public that boundless pollution would render Earth uninhabitable.
The term ‘ecofeminism’ was first used by Françoise d’Eaubonne in 1974. She postulated that the feminist revolution ends all dominance, creating equality between men and women, but also between people and nature.
Susan A. Mann (2011) traces the origins of ecofeminism to class inequalities in the late 19th century rather than to feminist movements engaged in political struggle. In the early stages of industrialisation, class and race influenced the risk of functioning in a polluted environment. The first ecofeminists fought for access to healthy food and drinking water. Ecofeminism proposes that hierarchy and binary thinking be abandoned, including the oppositions like emotions/reason, human/animal, subjectivity/objectivity, collectivism/individualism, body/mind, emotions/logic, sexuality/purity, matter/spirit, worse/better and submissive/domineering. The patriarchy values analytical and rational discourse over intuition and anarchist emotions. The latter are perceived to be negative, irrational, and weak. According to the philosopher Karen J. Warren (2015), this dualist thinking leads to the perception of human nature as a wild, chaotic force that ought to be tamed and controlled.
The most important element of the installation is a bowl filled with liquid glass, symbolising tenderness as a source of wisdom, and fragments of dishes that are building blocks associated with the past and identity.