The term witchcraft is used in a great number of ways, to refer to supernatural beliefs and practices that the user considers evil or dangerous. Some of its many meanings are confusing, and its use is frequently pejorative, and unless it is carefully defined by its user it can be quite misleading. But it is the best term for a set of beliefs that ethnology has revealed to be nearly universal and that has great significance for anthropology and social psychology. So the student should take great care to understand exactly what the user means by the term, and to separate its many popular meanings from its anthropological ones.
Popularly, witchcraft can mean any of the many meanings of magic, most often with negative connotation (for example, “black magic”); or of sorcery; or specialized forms of divination, such as dowsing (“water witching”); or anything “occult.” It has been applied to any of the African-based syncretistic magical or spiritual beliefs found in the American South and the Caribbean, including individual beliefs and full-fledged religious systems, such as mojo, conjure, voodoo, obeah, Vodou, Santeria, and so forth. It can refer to Wicca or other neo-pagan religious systems. It can mean satanism, or anything deemed satanic or inspired by Satan. It can mean romantic attraction, or irresistible fascination, or any power to confuse or make things appear differently, often as “witchery.” Often its use reveals more about the attitude of its user than its referent.
Among anthropologists, too, there is considerable variation in application of the term witchcraft. Some anthropologists in recent times have examined Wicca and other neo-pagan organizations, some of whose adherents refer to themselves as witches and their religion as witchcraft; but this is a recent phenomenon and belongs under the heading of alternative religions. It will not be discussed in this essay.
By witchcraft most anthropologists mean a set of beliefs in an evil power that vests itself in adult people and empowers them to do a variety of fantastic and terrible things. Unlike magic and sorcery, the power is not learned but innate, lodged within the body of the witch. Ethnology has found this belief system to operate in most of the world’s cultures and throughout recorded history. It reached its most elaborate manifestation in medieval Europe; but without its Christian trappings, the medieval European witch is nearly identical to witches of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. There are variations on some of the features: For instance, the power may be sought, and acquired through specific means; or it may be inherited through family bloodlines; or it may develop spontaneously and work without its bearer’s knowledge. The power may be activated by negative emotion, or it may be always active, energized by its own evil. It is generally available to both men and women, although women predominate in witchcraft suspicions worldwide. The witch is such a bizarre conception that it took anthropology some time to recognize its distribution and its significance; once it did, ethnographic and explanatory studies increased exponentially, and today the anthropological and historical literature on witchcraft is enormous.
Witchcraft in Anthropology
The distinction between two types of human supernatural evil was recognized in the early 1900s, but elaborations on these two types, and recognition of their near-universality, developed later. Pioneering credit ought to go to Reo Fortune, whose 1932 study of male sorcery and female witchcraft beliefs on the Melanesian island of Dobu was the first detailed ethnographic account. But Fortune’s report of a society so rife with suspicion and mistrust that members fled to escape supernatural retribution was received by English audiences with skepticism, and it was not until three decades later that his conclusions were affirmed. In his foreword to Fortune’s book, Bronislaw Malinowski indicated the widespread fear of sorcery and witchcraft among the neighboring Trobriand and other islands, and said that he was then working on “the full account of Trobriand sorcery”; and we could imagine that he might have intervened and established for Melanesia a place as the type site for the anthropology of witchcraft studies. But Malinowski apparently did not finish that work, and subsequent studies of these phenomena in the South Seas came much later. In 1935, the International African Institute’s journal Africa published a special issue on witchcraft (Vol. 8, No. 4), with an introduction by Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, and in 1937 Evans-Pritchard published his great work, Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. The Zande case and “African witchcraft” became the standards by which subsequent studies were measured, and remain so today.
For the next two decades African witchcraft was a central focus of the structural-functional school of British anthropology. Some important representative works are collected in Max Marwick’s Witchcraft & Sorcery: Selected Readings (1970, 1982) and John Middleton and E.H. Winter’s Witchcraft and Sorcery in East Africa (1963). The war years obscured the important work of American anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn, who recorded similar beliefs among the Navaho; an early edition of his Navaho Witchcraft was published by Harvard in 1944. But it was not until other studies appeared, like Jane Belo’s Bali: Rangda and Barong (1949), Beatrice Whiting’s Paiute Sorcery (1950), and Richard Lieban’s Cebuano Sorcery (1967, Philippines), that it became clear that the distinctions between sorcery as learned technique and witchcraft as innate power were widespread, possibly universal. Striking similarities were seen between traditional (“primitive”) witchcraft beliefs and those that characterized the terrible Christian witch-hunts of late medieval Europe. Several historians successfully applied anthropological perspectives to aspects of European witch beliefs.
Attributes of the Witch
Witches in each region have their own unique traits, but there are twelve attributes that characterize the witch wherever it appears. In this discussion it should be understood that witch refers to the power which may or may not be material, and which may work in the human world or in a separate, mystical dimension.
- Social subversion. Witches are angry and spiteful and dedicated to the overthrow of orderly human society.
- Nocturnal activity. Witches may operate in daytime, but they are most active at night.
- Transformation. The witchcraft power can transform itself into the form of any animal, or bird, or another human form, or into invisibility.
- Flight. The witch can fly, in the form of its bearer or an alter, and it can travel at great speed. The power can leave its human body behind as it goes off on its mission of mischief; or it can fly to another location in any form including the form of its bearer, so a person can be in two places at once.
- The familiar. The witch may have a spirit or animal pet or companion that can share the power, and that can accompany the witch or be sent by the witch on its own evil errand.
- The “Sabbat.” Witches of a community meet together periodically, for an orgy of forbidden behavior, and to develop new strategies for social subversion. Because Jews were the first group to be collectively demonized as witches in Europe, the Hebrew word came to be used for the witches’ gathering. The Sabbat is usually held at night at a known time and place, a wild dangerous place or a place of death, a cemetery or cremation site, a place people fear to go.
- Spread of disease. Witches are universally blamed for epidemics, especially fatal diseases of unknown etiology.
- Abduction of children. Witches everywhere are fond of little children, and seek to steal them (or their souls) away.
- Illicit sexual behavior. Witches engage in whatever sexual behavior is considered abnormal and wrong by the society (e.g., incest, pedophilia, homosexuality, bestiality, public nudity, or bizarre sexual stimulations and positions). The agenda of the Sabbat often includes a sexual orgy, among the witches and with their human victims.
- Ritual murder. At the Sabbat witches ritually kill their victims, usually with knives, and in very bloody fashion.
- Cannibalism and vampirism. Witches eat the flesh and drink the blood of their human victims, either during personal attacks upon them in their homes, or after sexually and otherwise tormenting them at the Sabbat.
- Association with death. Witches are always somehow associated with death, in at least four ways: they kill, they meet in a place of death, they use corpses for food or for their terrible potions, and a myth of the origin of witches may say that the original power was first given to people in a Faustian bargain by a god of mortality.
Some variations on these attributes are widespread in specific regions. Christian conceptions of witches in medieval Europe had all 12 attributes; foremost among several specific details was that they were agents of Satan. Also, medieval European witches most often flew on some sorts of mounts, either fantastic creatures, male goats, or broomsticks. In sub-Saharan Africa, the witchcraft power is often located in a specific substance in the body; a fatty or tumorlike growth that can be discerned through autopsy; or animal teeth or a ball of metal or hair, or even a live snake, any of which had been swallowed by the witch, or developed mystically within its body. Also in sub-Saharan Africa witches walk upside down, a reflection of the general belief that witches embody the opposite of human norms. As elsewhere, the genitals are the locus of dangerous power, and social nudity is bad; African witches appear naked at the Sabbath. And when they fly, African witches often emit jets of fire from their anuses and armpits.
Similarity between certain attributes of witches and shamans in Asia and the Americas have been noted: transformation, flight, and working with familiars. The fact that shamans can work sorcery is not notable, as this is a learned skill open to anyone. But the combination of sorcery and witchcraft practiced by some shamans is unique. In his classic 1963 article “The Sorcerer and His Magic” (originally published in French, 1949), Claude Lévi-Strauss described how shamans could use their powers for evil purposes, in what later came to be known as “dark shamanism.” A collection of writings on this theme was compiled in 2004 by Neil Whitehead and Robin Wright in their book, In Darkness and Secrecy: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia.
Variants on the Theme: Were-Animals, and The Evil Eye
Belief in the ability of certain people to transform themselves into animals, also called shape-shifting and the animal counterpart a were-animal (from Old English wer, man), is widespread in world ethnology and may be a cultural universal. It is a defining feature of witches and shamans, but it exists in other cultural contexts as well. Werewolves and vampires combine other features of the witch, specifically nocturnal behavior and desire for human flesh and blood, and they can be understood as regional variants on the witch-familiar theme.
The phenomenon known as Evil Eye is a clear variant on the witchcraft theme. This is a belief in an antisocial power that develops in some people, even without their knowledge. The power passes through the gaze, but it can just emanate from the bearer’s body. It is stimulated by envy or anger, but as it is an evil power it may act with no emotional trigger. Babies, sick, elderly, and otherwise frail people are most vulnerable; but, like witchcraft, Evil Eye can infect livestock, and can cause general misfortune. Perhaps everywhere people believe that evil can be transmitted through the eyes, but Evil Eye is an institution with specific characteristics and remedies, and can coexist with full-fledged witchcraft in some areas. It seems to have originated in the Middle East and is indigenous to the Mediterranean fringe, from whence it spread throughout Europe and across the Atlantic through European cultural influence.
Defense and Remedy
Defenses against the activities of witches are similar to those against demonic spirits and the mystical forces projected by sorcery. Magical power can be harnessed and manipulated, and powerful amulets are generally effective against all such evil influences. Representations of horns are widely used as anti-witchcraft devices; Italians wear little gold horns, cornuti, on necklaces, against the Evil Eye. In times of relative calm, witchcraft is stimulated by antisocial human emotions, envy, and anger, and so if witchcraft is diagnosed as the cause of some problem, people in some competitive relationship with the afflicted may be the first suspected. The most effective remedy is for the witch to confess and withdraw the spell. Most frequently the witch cannot be located, and a specialist, earlier termed a “witch doctor,” may be engaged to exorcise the witchcraft power and cleanse the afflicted persons and their surroundings.
Witches are a fact of social life, and it may be deemed necessary to conduct periodic anti-witchcraft rituals throughout a community. In some societies special organizations of psychically gifted people can sense the presence of witches or evil spirits through some specially enhanced perceptual mechanism, such as attributed to the “witch smellers” of Central and East Africa. In the kingdom of Bachama of northeastern Nigeria, members of a secret society of men “see” witches through a conceptual organ at the forehead and the occiput. Identifying the witch is the most important step; driving it out with specially empowered spears or poisons is then easily accomplished. Or, powerful spirits may be invoked and embodied in fearsome witch-cleansing masquerades aimed at scaring witches away, such as the Nupe ndako-gboya, the Senufo Kunugbaha, and a variety of horned or tusked anti-evil masks, some of which breathe smoke and fire; or witches may be periodically propitiated, as in the Yoruba Gelede or the Balinese Rangda masquerades. If a witch is detected, he or she may undergo a ritual of exorcism to remove the power from his or her body. In Africa this may require a spoken pronouncement and ritual spitting, or vomiting of the witchcraft substance, by the witch. Like sorcery, witchcraft “works” by means of the victim’s psychology, specifically the placebo effect, and culture-specific cures for witchcraft-inflicted diseases may have dramatic results.
Through the 20th century the most common explanations for witchcraft beliefs, suspicions, and accusations were framed in terms of social and psychological functions. Like sorcery, witchcraft has been shown to serve various social control functions: lest they be suspected of witchcraft, people are careful to mind the norms of social propriety. Uncivil people, people who accrue extra wealth and do not share, people who avoid participation in social events, might be suspected. And, as Monica Wilson pointed out in her 1951 paper, “Witch Beliefs and Social Structure,” witchcraft provides a handy and logical explanation for social misfortune in cosmological systems in which chance and coincidence have no place. Witchcraft answers the questions, “Why me?” and “Why just then?”
A paradoxical fact of society is that social living generates tensions. In his appreciation of Evans-Pritchard’s great work in 1944, the British social anthropologist Max Gluckman famously said, “If a sociologist can find where charges of witchcraft in a particular society fall, he can almost reconstruct the social relationships of the society.” Social analysts have shown that regular patterns of witchcraft (or sorcery) suspicion and accusation can be demarcated, according to the nature of social relationships. Relationships characterized by tension or competition are most likely to generate suspicion. Respect for the magical and social power of speech tends to deter suspicions from being verbalized in open accusation until there is credible evidence. It has been shown also that suspicions increase during times of stress; and as stress increases, accusations also increase, as less evidence is required for credibility, and the classic scapegoating function of witchcraft is demonstrated. The prevalence of witchcraft suspicions is a barometer of social stress; Max Marwick called it a “social strain-gauge.”
If stress remains high and some general sense of deprivation becomes prevalent, a group of people within the society might be blamed; they might be demonized in various ways, and a witch-hunt might be launched against them. The witch-hunt is a specific type of social persecutory movement. Its instigations and expectations, even its means, are like a revitalization movement turned inward. It might be temporarily cathartic for the perpetrators, proving a distraction; but its results can be socially devastating.
In a 1989 paper, James Brain noted that witchcraft beliefs are absent or unimportant, and sorcery beliefs weak, in small-scale, mobile societies with egalitarian values and little material property, like hunter-gatherers and pastoralists. By contrast, among sedentary indigenous peoples witchcraft beliefs are likely to be strong. Social fission is an inherent quality of nomadic societies, explained as a response to limited resources; Brain suggests that through the same mechanisms people escape the kinds of social tensions that generate witchcraft suspicions.
It should also be noted that among some reconstituted societies with syncretistic cultural systems, sorcery is present but witches are likely to be absent or only vestigial. Among African-based cultures in the Caribbean and South America, numerous African cultural elements are easily discernible, but the witch is notably absent. The social fears that find their focus in the witch are present, but are dispersed among other dangerous denizens of the night. There are shape-shifters; child-stealing, cannibalistic, and bloodsucking creatures; and a variety of mysterious sinister societies that meet in forbidding places at night; but there is no single creature that embodies all of the twelve attributes of the ethnological or historical witch. A possible explanation lies in another possibly unique aspect of African witchcraft: It may be a marker of social membership. Each culture has its own form of witchcraft, which runs in the veins or is passed on among its own members exclusively. Among Bachama, for example, the witchcraft power is mwito. A person with long continuous ancestral links in the patrilineage is said to be ji-bato ka mwito, of the patrilineage with the potential for witchcraft; a person who traces his ancestry to someone who was adopted into the patrilineage is ji-bato a mwito, of the patrilineage but without the unique Bachama marker, hence possibly ineligible for inheritance of some important title. It may be that the unique blood-borne social marker was lost in the horrendous social devastation of the slave trade, and no acceptable substitute was possible in the construction of new organized societies in the New World.
Explanations for some witch fears have been found in neurobiology. An unusually terrifying nightmare, of the sort called a “night terror,” accompanied by sleep paralysis, might explain widespread reports of nocturnal attacks by witches and vampires who intrude into the bedroom and bear down on the terrified but paralyzed victim. The sufferer feels enervated and drained in the morning, which strengthens his conviction that some of his life force has been removed.
Explanations in terms of social and psychological function are situational; they may not indicate origin. The relatively new field of evolutionary psychology proposes that some behaviors and beliefs might be shaped by evolutionary biology, and is thereby rephrasing some explanations that anthropology has suggested for a long time. Today the highly productive brain sciences may confirm some such suggestions about the attributes of the witch, enumerated above. Some of these reflect universal cultural traits, and some can be seen as having adaptive value. Mary Douglas described witchcraft as “the standardized nightmare of a group,” and indeed, some of the twelve attributes of the witch embody deep human fears. Some seem clear: Attribute (1), social subversion, is the universal suspicion that generates conspiracy theories and witch hunts. It derives from the we-other social attitude that characterizes all coherent societies, and attribute (6), the secret gathering, is related. Attribute (2), fear of the night, is universal, and sensible. Attribute (8), abduction of children, reflects the universal instinctual reaction of alarm that all adults exhibit at the threat of harm to children. Attribute (9), sexuality, is central to the condition of being human, and a central social issue in all cultures. Issues of deviant sexuality arouse visceral reaction in people. Attribute (11), cannibalism and vampirism, is universally deeply repugnant. Attribute (12), the awareness of death, is central to the human condition; it is a basic concern of all religions, and the fact of death is elaborately accommodated in all societies. Some of the other attributes are not so clearly fundamental to humanity, but they are suggestive: (3) and (4), the ideas of transformation and flight, characterize children’s fantasies and adult myths everywhere, and are the stuff of dreams; (5), the familiar, may be a projection of people’s universal relationships with animal pets; (7), epidemics, are socially and psychologically devastating, and are threats to the continuance of society; and (10), the universal civil sanction against murder, is clearly socially adaptive, and the idea of ritual murder is obscene sacrilege of the sort that generates rage in people.
Suggestions that these components of witch beliefs are rooted in fundamental human fears are strengthened by the fact that many of them are the stuff of conspiracy theories that emerge throughout history, allegations of the “blood libel” and other unthinkably terrible deeds made by one group against another; and most of them can be discerned in the fears of bloodthirsty satanic cults that swept Christian areas of the entire world in the 1980s and early 1990s, and still crop up occasionally. The satanists were alleged to do everything witches do, with three general exceptions: transformation, sharing of their power with familiars, and flight; but warnings from some fundamentalist Christian organizations did allege that Satan had empowered his servants with specific personal demonic spirits.
It would be expected that as the education, religion, and technology of industrial societies permeate the traditional world, witchcraft beliefs would die. But for several apparent reasons witchcraft and related beliefs have continued in the modern world. One reason is that the agents of change rarely addressed traditional witchcraft beliefs specifically, simply assuming that their inherent falsity would become clear in modernization; another is that witchcraft answers questions that the new cosmologies, which accept chance and coincidence, cannot answer; another set of reasons is found in the visceral, instinctive fears expressed in witchcraft’s composite attributes, which are triggered into unthinking social action in situations of extreme anxiety (i.e., the witch may be a natural human phenomenon).
And, modernization is not systemic: It affects only parts of cultural systems, leaving the others to react. Corrupt governments, civil wars, ecological change, and epidemic disease have exacerbated poverty in Third World areas. Rapid globalization presents confounding new mysteries to people, rural and urban, bringing strange new values and drastically altering traditional social systems. Financial dealings via the Internet result in rapid and inexplicable wealth for some, and new ventures and risks for many. Witchcraft provides explanations that people can understand. In their 1998 Max Gluckman Memorial Lecture (published in the American Ethnologist, 1999), Jean and John Comaroff described new urban realities surrounding “occult economies” in South Africa. These beliefs, actually resurrections of old ones, include invisible hordes of zombie laborers, and a brisk and lucrative trade in specific human body parts, sought for their magical power and supplied by ritual murders, commonplace in the anonymous squalor of cities. Fears of various spells of sexual impotency, including “penis-snatching,” have affected men in several West African cities in recent decades.
It is axiomatic in anthropology that witches become more important in situations of rapid social change. Traditional witchcraft beliefs have been expressed in murderous regional witch-hunts in South Africa and Indonesia, and local ones in South America and areas of the former Soviet Union, all in the decade of the 1990s. New expressions of the old beliefs have pervaded traditional areas today, stimulated by unprecedented social problems. Urban homelessness is now common, but is a relatively new phenomenon in African cities, and homeless people are frequently the targets of witch-hunting mobs. Hard economic realities have shrunk kinship systems in modern times, and today brutal armed conflicts and AIDS have killed enormous numbers of adults in Africa. A result is an unsettling new social phenomenon: orphans. Traditionally only adults could be witches, and children were the favorite victims of witches. But today some new and terrible realities of childhood, including abduction for slavery, involving both hard labor and sexual slavery, and for conscription into rebel armies as child-soldiers, and the formation of gangs of homeless urban street children, have all contributed to the emergence of disturbing new beliefs in child-witches.
We might be reminded of the famous statement by George Lyman Kittredge, in his great work, Witchcraft in Old and New England (1929): “The belief in witchcraft is the common heritage of humanity. It is not chargeable to any particular time, or race, or form of religion.”
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