The word sorcery usually means some sort of individual manipulation of supernatural forces to harm another person or to enrich the self at the expense of another, and in this sense belief in it seems to be absolutely universal. The English word derives from the Latin sort-, sors (“lots”), as in sortilege, to decide by the random fall of certain designated objects. This was a common method of divination in the classical world, which anyone could learn to perform but which was widely considered to be a human intrusion into divine business; hence, it was frequently forbidden under both ecclesiastical and civil law. This is especially true in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But the term sorcery came to refer to a great many “occult” dealings that were potentially dangerous. Often where it appears, the term is not defined, and its various possible meanings may have very different conceptual bases, and so the student must take care to ascertain exactly what is meant.
Sorcery can have any of the many meanings of magic or witchcraft. It is often used as synonymous with shamanism. It can mean any of the “occult” dabblings and traffickings condemned in the Bible, including conjuring of spirits and any of various methods of divination; it is the most frequent English gloss for the Hebrew kishuf or kishef (mechashefa, a female practitioner of kishef, was famously translated as “witch” in the King James Version of 1611, thereby constructing that terrible commandment in Exodus 22:18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”) Sorcery generally has a negative connotation, as in “black magic,” but not always; sometimes it refers to any individual efforts at manipulating the supernatural for personal benefit. Even within anthropology there is not uniform agreement on its appropriate usage. The following discussion will survey the most common meanings of sorcery by anthropologists, spirit invocation and command and harmful magic, and will consider some defenses against sorcery, remedies for misfortune caused by it, and anthropological explanations for this apparently dysfunctional phenomenon.
Sorcery in Anthropology
E. Evans-Pritchard in his famous work, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937), is credited for having clarified the distinction between sorcery and witchcraft that most anthropologists recognize: sorcery is a learned magical practice requiring words, objects, and rituals, whereas witchcraft is an innate power that develops within some adults and operates mystically and sometimes without its bearer’s knowledge. The same distinction had been noted earlier in Melanesia by Reo Fortune in his Sorcerers of Dobu (1932), with the difference that on Dobu, mystical witchcraft is women’s unique capacity; sorcery is men’s. But Fortune’s report was not given credence until three decades later, and his pioneering place in the anthropology of sorcery and witchcraft was overshadowed by Evans-Pritchard.
Presumably the evil magician can demonstrate his techniques, and there are some ethnographic descriptions of how harmful magic is performed, but most descriptions of how sorcerers work are anecdotal, based in popular belief. One reason for the ethnographic difficulty in obtaining firsthand data is that sorcery is almost always covert. Sorcery manipulates the supernatural, which is always dangerous, and it is antisocial, so it is everywhere forbidden, even illegal; hence, it is clandestine, deeply feared, and discussed reluctantly and furtively, and it is more suspected than demonstrated in society. And some of the sorcerer’s alleged techniques involve invocation and command of spirits, or fantastic animal familiars, or mystical powers, and are impossible to verify. Worldwide, sorcerers are far more often men than women. The most likely sorcerers are people who have legitimately learned how to exploit natural and supernatural powers without harm to themselves, so it is assumed that they can use those same powers for antisocial purposes, for their own purposes, or for hire to others such as priests or shamans and skilled herbalists or other types of healers. Or, it is assumed that ordinary people can learn the techniques of sorcery under the tutelage of a skilled sorcerer.
All over the world it is assumed that some people have perfected a technique of summoning and commanding spirits, and this is one widespread referent of the term sorcery. The idea of sorcery as spirit invocation and command is probably universal, and attack by a human-sent demon is an occasional diagnosis of some physical malady or social misfortune. But in most of the world’s cultures, contact with spirits is extremely dangerous, and persons known to have had such contact cannot move freely in society. Spirit invocation is a common function of priests and a common beginning to any ritual of supplication, and shamans enter states of ecstatic trance in which their souls travel out to negotiate with spirits. But both of these respected practitioners must go through a ritual of desacralization before returning to society. And spirits are generally considered to be sentient and willful beings who are not docilely commanded and who, instead, might strike the presumptuous person or those near to him. James George Frazer in his great work, The Golden Bough, recognized these problems in his discussion of spirit command as a magical act; he asserted that when spirits are commanded by magic, they respond passively and dumbly, like the forces of nature. This assertion may be widely unjustified. The widespread belief that people can command spirits and send them out on personal missions of evil remains a vague general fear, in the realm of conspiracy theory, only rarely associated with specific individuals.
Sorcery as Magic
Sorcerers may be assumed to have strengthened and energized their own measure of the personal power, similar to mana, that all cultures seem to believe in, and which is central to belief in magic. Or sorcerers’ power may be bestowed by their spirit helpers, as among the Harney Valley Paiute of Oregon studied by Beatrice Whiting and reported in her classic work, Paiute Sorcery (1950). Apparently everywhere, sorcerers’ power can be used to project things mystically through space. In Africa and the Americas, there are beliefs that sorcerers might dip a forefinger into some concoction and, by pointing it at their victims, project some malign influence—this belief is one rationalization for the avoidance of finger-pointing in social exchanges. (Would such sorcerers use their left hands for such nefarious acts? Sorcery is metaphorically referred to as “the work of the left hand” in Haiti and elsewhere, to distinguish this sinister act from honest, open worship of the gods, or from good magic.) In all regions of the world, illnesses might be caused by some foreign object or active agent mystically projected by a sorcerer into the body of the afflicted. In Africa and throughout the Americas, sorcerers send invisible darts, or needles, or bits of bone or tooth or other animal parts, or live animals, into their victims; among the Cebuano of the Philippines, as described by Richard Lieban, sorcerers’ agents include seven-legged insects who eat away at the victim’s insides and return at their master’s command.
Perhaps the most common referent of the term sorcery is harmful or selfish magic, the sympathetic magic described by Frazer in The Golden Bough. Magic involves the manipulation and transfer of power through symbolic communication. Magic may involve manipulation of natural forces, believed to energize all nature. Magic presumes a coherent universe in which all things are potentially interconnected; power can be sent along such connections by manipulations of symbols—objects, words, or actions that represent others and that take on and project their power through Frazer’s classic principles of similarity or contact. The natural order of things is good and open; good magic, such as that used by Trobriand gardeners described by Bronislaw Malinowski, helps the natural forces along their regular paths. Traditional society tends to assume what anthropologist George Foster called “limited good”: the necessities and luxuries of life are finite in quantity; if all people take just what they need, there is enough for all.
As it is harmful, sorcery works contrary to the natural order. It interferes with the natural movements of the forces and redirects them, and this is dangerous business; once dislodged, the forces of nature can run amok and injure the sorcerer or those near to him. It is assumed that the skilled sorcerer has methods that protect him from backfiring forces, but others do not. And, as sorcery is selfish, it upsets the natural distribution of goodness in the world; even though the sorcerer’s aim may be personal enrichment, not direct harm to another, by accruing more than he needs, he automatically deprives others. These are further reasons why this form of sorcery is clandestine.
Sorcery has been described as using legitimate means—the principles of magic—for illegitimate ends. The best-known form of magical sorcery is the “voodoo doll,” a southern U.S. form of image magic, which intends to harm a victim by harming an image of the victim. The image incorporates some features unique to the victim or some bodily effluvium or a piece of clothing that has been in close contact with the victim. For fear of sorcery, people are careful with their bodily leavings, especially those of vulnerable individuals: infants or the elderly or sick people. And sorcery has everywhere been used in feuding and warfare; in Africa today, inventories of offensive weapons seized from rebel combatants often include “charms.”
The simplest and most widespread forms of magical sorcery are obscene gesture and curse. In the former, a person uses a part of the body as symbol to convey malevolent power, such as “giving the finger” in the West. Curse is the direct malevolent use of words whose meaning conveys some harm or misfortune. Curse must be distinguished from invocation; for example, “God damn you!” is invocation, calling on the Almighty to condemn the other to eternal torment in hellfire. This is very risky, because the deity may be offended by such human presumption (taking its name “in vain”).”Go to Hell!” is a curse. It contains the same meaning but uses the power inherent in the spoken words, enhanced by the evil intent of the speaker and carried and energized by his breath, his life force.
Defense and Remedy
In traditional stable societies, where there is sorcery there will be defenses against it and remedies for misfortune caused by it. Sorcery “works” through the well-described placebo effect; the victim and his social network all believe in its efficacy, and he may indeed suffer the intended symptoms. In his famous 1942 description of “The Voodoo Death,” Walter Cannon took data from various early reports, especially Australian Aborigines’ beliefs in sorcerers’ technique of «bone-pointing.” He showed the deleterious physiological effects of the body’s overproduction of adrenaline in response to prolonged intense fear and the rapid and dramatic relief that can result from the patient’s being convinced by a healer that the evil has been removed.
It is universally believed that power can be drawn from one source and used magically by individuals. Religious texts and symbolic objects are frequently used as protective amulets on people’s dwellings, workplaces, and bodies. Reproductive power is extremely strong, and representations of both male and female genitals are universal power symbols. Quick defense can be made by symbolic use of parts of the body, such as the Italian mano fica, the “fig hand,” the clenched fist with the thumb protruding slightly between the first two fingers (a crude representation of the female genitals) or the mano cornuta, “horned hand,” representing horns, which also are power symbols used around the world. Making the “sign of the cross” over one’s chest and crossing the fingers are similar hasty protective devices.
Because sorcery is difficult to detect, divination is often involved, first in diagnosing it, then, rarely, in assigning blame. Bad spells can be nullified or deflected by stronger magical or spiritual power, and this is a frequent reason for the performance of magical rituals or supplication of spirits. Accusations of sorcery are not made lightly. Most often the sorcerer is not identified; frequently, specific persons are suspected, but lack of clear evidence forestalls accusations. Conviction means penalty and social stigma, and false accusation rebounds upon the accuser. A trial by ordeal might be required, with both accuser and accused participating.
If a malady is caused by possession by a demon sent by a sorcerer, an exorcism must be performed upon the victim or his surroundings. This might be accomplished by the healer’s invocation of a more powerful spirit, which is commanded to drive out the offending spirit, or by his own mastery and command of the possessing demon. Relief comes through the placebo effect.
Everywhere there are civil regulations against defamatory language. Literacy enhances respect for the power of the word; spoken words can be repelled, but the written word achieves an awesome, perhaps terrifying permanence. Protective and aggressive charms containing writing are common today, and modern laws against slander and libel attest to the continuing respect for the power of spoken and written words.
Sorcery seems dysfunctional and disruptive to social order, and its universality presents a puzzle. Social analysts have seen various “social control” functions in sorcery beliefs; fear of being suspected of this terrible anti-social impulse tends to keep people mindful of their social manners. A “social-leveling” function of sorcery beliefs has been seen in egalitarian societies in the suspicions that accrue to stingy people and hoarders or people who inexplicably have more than they need, thereby depriving others.
It has been said that fears of sorcery support social hierarchies; people more powerful politically are often presumed to have access to strong supernatural power. There are clear political situations in which suspicions of sorcery are advantageous; the Duvaliers of Haiti strengthened their autocratic rule by actively encouraging the popular sense that they were powerful sorcerers, and many African leaders have forestalled their enemies by promoting beliefs that among their entourage were powerful sorcerers.
But at the most basic level, suspicion of sorcery is surely a function of the inevitable tensions that arise between individuals in social relationships, the same sorts of tensions that generate witchcraft suspicions and conspiracy theories.
- Stephen, M. (Ed.). (1987). Sorcerer and witch in Melanesia. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
- Walker, D. E., Jr. (Ed.). (1989). Witchcraft and sorcery of the American Native peoples. Moscow: University of Idaho Press.