Witchcraft and sorcery (Anthropology)

Europeans and North Americans often regard the belief in witchcraft as unique to the witch persecutions of the Inquisition and Reformation. Prior to the Inquisition witchcraft became enshrined in the theology of the church, and clergy assigned the administration of evil to Satan and witches. Since Satan was imagined to be spiritual, he could only acquire physical presence by entering people’s bodies through possession. During the period of the Inquisition, ecclesiastical and secular courts tried thousands of suspects on charges of witchcraft, heresy and devil worship. In 1487 the book Malleus Mal-eficarum (‘Hammer of the Witches’) was published and used throughout Europe as a handbook on the discovery, trial, torture and execution of witches. The Reformation was partly a reaction against the Inquisition. However, Protestants did not halt witch persecutions. In fact, Calvin’s native city, Geneva, became a centre of witch-hunting. Clergy blamed Satan and his witches for spreading disease epidemics and the plague. These beliefs were also prevalent among Calvinists in New England. Here, the last major witchhunt was said to have occurred during 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, when twenty accused witches were executed in public. These events are widely memorialized as a symbol of prejudice and intolerance that stands contrary to American democratic ideals. In his 1953 play, The Crucible, Arthur Miller uses the Salem witch-executions as a parable about McCarthyism.

Actually, witchcraft beliefs are much more widely distributed in time and place. They are encountered throughout history, in virtually all continents — in Africa, Asia, native North America, South America, and in the Pacific — and continue to feature in contemporary times.

Witchcraft in classical theory

Due to its widespread distribution, witchcraft has become a staple topic in anthropological research. In his classical study of the Azande of colonial Sudan, Evans-Pritchard (1937) distinguished between ‘witchcraft’ and ‘sorcery’ by their technique. He defined the former as the innate, inherited ability to cause misfortune or death. For Azande witchcraft involved unconscious psychic powers, emanating from a black swelling, located near the liver. By contrast, Azande referred to sorcery as the performance of rituals, the uttering of spells, and the manipulation of organic substances such as herbs, with the conscious intent of causing harm. Unlike in the case of witchcraft, persons could learn to practise sorcery.

Whilst this distinction is widespread throughout East Africa and in many Melanesian societies, it is not made in most other parts of Africa, nor of the world. Many contemporary anthropologists therefore use the terms ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ more broadly to denote both types of persons and modes of action. (I retain the word ‘sorcery’ only where used in the original texts.)

There is a recurrence of widely shared details in witchcraft beliefs cross-culturally. (1) Though human, witches incorporate non-human power. Witches are possessed by Satan; have pythons in their bellies; work with animals such as snakes, cats, baboons and owls, that they own as familiars; or witches themselves change into the shape of familiars. (2) Witches are nearly always adults. They may bear physical stigmata like a red eye, a Devil’s mark, or a special witchcraft substance. (3) Witches tend to become socially important in times of crisis, when all sorts of misfortune are ascribed to them. (4) Witches harm their own kin and neighbours rather than strangers. (5) Witchcraft is motivated by envy and malice, rather than by the pursuit of material gain. (6) Witches reverse usual expectations of behaviour. They work at night, commit incest, practice cannibalism, go naked instead of clothed, or may stand backwards when they knock at doors. (7) Witchcraft is nearly always immoral.

Classical anthropological theories have left open questions about the actual performance of witchcraft. Instead, they have sought to unearth the psychological and social realities underlying witchcraft beliefs, or the cultural meanings encoded by them. Fortune (1932) sees sorcery on the Dobu Island of Melanesia, as a conception of mystical power. He suggests that in a political system with no titular authority, prowess in sorcery was perceived as an important component of leadership. According to Fortune, Dobuans used sorcery ‘for collecting bad debts and enforcing economic obligation, in vendetta to avenge one’s own sickness or one’s kinsmen’s death, to wipe out serious insult’ (p. 175).

Evans-Pritchard (1937) demonstrates how witchcraft formed an ‘ideational system’ amongst the Azande. He argues that from the point of view of the individual, in particular situations, the beliefs presented a logical explanation of unfortunate events. Evans-Pritchard insists that the theory of witchcraft did not exclude empirical knowledge about cause and effect, but supplemented theories of natural causation, and answered questions about the particularity of misfortunes. He cites the famous example of a granary that collapsed, injuring those sitting beneath it. The Azande explained this event in empirical terms: that termites had eaten the supports. But they resorted to witchcraft to explain why particular individuals sat beneath the granary at the precise moment when it collapsed.

(Kluckhohn (1944) elaborates a psychological theory of witchcraft. He argues that among the Navaho witchcraft served as a channel for projecting emotions of guilt, desire and aggression. By investing the witch with responsibility for misfortune, Navaho absolved themselves from blame. Their forbidden desires, such as incest, also found an outlet in fantasies of witchcraft. Moreover, under stressful conditions, witches were scapegoats for hostile impulses. Through accusations of witchcraft Navaho could directly express their hostile feelings, against those to whom they would otherwise be unable to show anger.

Sociological theories of conflict inspired analysis of witchcraft in the 1960s. Marwick (1965) contends that witchcraft accusations reformulate problematic social relations that are not susceptible to judicial processes. He argues that amongst the Chewa of Zambia accusations of witchcraft occurred when the matrilineage grew beyond the size that resources could sustain. As tensions over inheritance became apparent, accusations of witchcraft served as an idiom for initiating processes of fission, and enabled the accusers to break off redundant relationships.

During the 1970s interpretive studies delineated the meaning of witchcraft beliefs within wider symbolic systems, and neo-Marxists demonstrated the instrumentality of witchcraft accusations in political-economic struggles. In the latter tradition, Steadman (1985) contends that amongst the Hewa of Papua New Guinea, the killing of witches was an outcome of competition for resources between different roofing and flooring parties. By executing those members of other parties who threatened their interests, the witch killers generated fear and communicated their capacity to use violence to protect these interests.

Witchcraft, modernity and globalization

Witchcraft beliefs and accusations are far from an archaic tradition that has disappeared with the growth of "modernity and globalization. Neither does witchcraft merely belong to the postcolonial world. In many contemporary Mediterranean societies it is believed that the envy of certain persons can bring harm to objects and other people through an "’evil eye’. In Portugal mothers fix amulets around the garments of babies, and men paint the sign of the cross onto the houses of both the bride and groom before a wedding, to ward off these effects. In Brocage, France, witchcraft is invoked to explain persistent misfortunes such alcoholism, impotence and insanity. Another example of witchcraft is the allegation that English children are sexually abused by marked and robed people in secret Satanic rituals. The Satanists are also imagined to practise bestiality, forced abortions, animal and human sacrifices, and cannibalism (La Fontaine 1997).

Anthropological research shows how modernization and globalization spawm new occult and witchcraft beliefs. Because discourses of witchcraft are so open-ended they allow for the constant incorporation of new themes. Ciekawy and Geschiere (1998) argue that the witch forges a link between local kinship networks and global changes. ‘Witchcraft discourse forces an opening in the village and closed family network: after all, it is the basic interests of the witch to betray his or her victims to outsiders’ (p. 5). Not only do witchcraft discourses enable people to conceptualize how new technologies have opened up local communites; they also express concerns about the unequal benefits that these processes provide.

These dynamics are very much apparent in Papua New Guinea and in the Cameroon. Lattas (1993) contends that in the New Britain area of Papua New Guinea, sorcery constituted a kind of political language. He shows how discourses of sorcery incorporated European symbols, offices and commodities. People allegedly learnt and swapped sorcery skills on the plantations, and purchased sorcery substances such as powerful herbicides on the marketplace.

Discourses of witchcraft have overrun all political spaces in the Cameroon. Much like conspiracy theories, they render the sudden loss and accumulation of power comprehensible. Geschiere (1997) highlights the prominent belief amongst villagers that an occult force called djambe is the principle behind the success of politicians. They also suspected that the nouveaux riches transform their victims into zombies in order to exploit their labour. Local witches even worked with the mafia, in organizing worldwide zombie traffic. In Cameroon the state constantly experiments with new ways of containing witchcraft. Regional courts in Cameroon’s East Province have even sentenced witches to imprisonment on the basis of testimony provided by certified diviners (Geschiere 1997).

Recent theoretical concerns

The persistence, and even enhanced prominence of witchcraft, has been the catalyst for new theoretical approaches. Noting the enormous power of these discourses, West (2005) and Kapferer (2003) challenge the notion that witchcaft beliefs symbolize or represent other social and historical realities.

West (2005) notes that his Muedan informants in Mozambique were adamant that sorcery is not a metaphor for abstract things such as social predation: they insisted that sorcery is real! West suggests that it might make greater sense to adopt a "phenomenological approach that engages with the Muedan world of sorcery from a particular space within it. This approach compels us to view sorcery practices as actual exercises in constructing, rather than merely representing, social realities. He sees the reality of sorcery as built up through language and discourse, and as experienced through verbal constructs such as threats and accusations (West 2005). People do not speak of sorcery: they actually speak sorcery. As Muedans imagine sorcery, they experience their imaginings as real. In this conception, West insists, symbols stand for themselves and are an essential part of the world of which they speak. Sorcery is an ever-present language, discourse or sub-text to social encounters.

Kapferer (2003) suggests that beliefs and practices related to witchcraft and the occult have potency because they stand apart from everyday reason and engage the human imagination. They thrive in ‘phantasmagoric spaces’ such as Sri Lankan temples and sorcery shrines — that do not represent external realities, but have their own logic.

These theories can potentially shift scholarly debate in new directions. Yet more in-depth research is required to convince sceptical anthropologists. Current opinion seems to suggest both continuities and discontinuities between discourses of witchcraft and the contexts in which they occur. We cannot discount the special salience of these beliefs in marginal contexts, where mystery and misfortune regularly occur, nor wholly exclude the potential of witches to embody historical memories and contemporary desires. The power of witchcraft discourses seem to derive from the persistence of unanswered questions about misfortune and inequality, and from their open-endedness, multi-vocality, and indeterminacy.

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