Witchcraft in the Modern World

Via Sepia Mutiny, a Washington Post story about accusations of witchcraft in modern day India. The author, Rama Lakshmi, takes the view that such accusations are really about maintaining patriarchy, and should not be thought of as mere “superstition”:

In a tribal society steeped in superstition, the spells of witches often are blamed for stubborn illnesses, a stroke of bad luck, the drying up of wells, crop failure or the inability to give birth to a son. But social analysts and officials said that superstition and faith in witchcraft often are a ploy for carrying out violence against women.

“Superstition is only an excuse. Often a woman is branded a witch so that you can throw her out of the village and grab her land, or to settle scores, family rivalry, or because powerful men want to punish her for spurning their sexual advances. Sometimes it is used to punish women who question social norms,” said Pooja Singhal Purwar, an official at the Jharkhand social welfare department.

“Women from well-to-do homes in the village are never branded witches,” Purwar said. “It is always the socially and economically vulnerable women who are targeted and boycotted.”

Unfortunately, the online fulltext version of Mahasveta Devi’s excellent story Bayen has been removed from the web at the request of the publishers. It is an account of how such witchcraft accusations play out in rural India (and like Zora Neal Hurston’s work, it is ethnographically informed). You can find it in the collection: Five Plays.

A book about witchcraft in South Africa, Witchcraft, Violence and Democracy, sees contemporary witchcraft accusations in a very different light. According to this H-Net review by Gary Kynoch (via Anthropologi.info), the book sees witchcraft accusations as an attempt to explain continued suffering even after the demise of the Apartheid state:

Community solidarity has eroded when compared to the unity of the “struggle” years. At the same time, improved opportunities for black South Africans have enabled a significant minority of Sowetans to accumulate material wealth and enjoy a relatively privileged lifestyle. The less fortunate are often bitter at being left behind and rising inequalities have fuelled community and family conflict in the post-apartheid period. Without “the system” to blame, witchcraft is increasingly considered the source of many of these difficulties. The anxiety engendered by the AIDS crisis has further heightened witchcraft fears.

I personally haven’t read anything Anthropological on witchcraft more recent than Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, but I almost feel inspired to create a course syllabus on witchcraft in the contemporary world. Anyone similarly inspired would definitely want to take a look at this MIT Open Courseware syllabus for James Howe’s course: “Magic, Witchcraft, and the Spirit World.”

Finally, I wanted to add one other witchcraft link: to the excellent Museum of Witchcraft in Iceland. I visited this exhibit in 2000, and enjoyed it tremendously. The witchcraft accusations discussed there were mostly in the seventeenth century, where they seem to have been a European import. The most fun part of visiting the exhibit was watching the Icelandic visitors discussing whose ancestors were accusers and whose were the accused (Iceland is a small country and everyone is related).

Around 130 cases of witchcraft or sorcery are found in court records both from the high court at Þingvellir and in fragments of county court records. Of the approximately 170 persons accused around 10% were women, the rest were males, mostly of the lower classes though some sheriffs and clergymen were also accused. None of the latter suffered physical punishments. It must be remembered in this context that the total population of Iceland at the time was only around fifty thousand.

UPDATE: This story from the Telegraph UK just happened to appear today:

A Sicilian palazzo once used as a headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition has been discovered to contain dozens of pieces of graffiti by “witches” condemned to burn at the stake.

The anguished scribblings and drawings were found on the walls during renovation work on the Palazzo Steri in Palermo, reviving what had been a nightmare for the many women held there to await their fate centuries ago.

One of the damned wrote: “Hot and cold I am / as I be consumed by the fever of malaria / my guts do tremble / and mine heart and spirit grow weak.”

6 thoughts on “Witchcraft in the Modern World

  1. Take a look at Tanya Luhrmann’s Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, about magical practitioners in comtemporary England.

  2. It´s not really possible for a person to gain a degree in anthropology without having read Jeanne Favret-Saada´s Les Mots, La Mort, Les Sorts, is it???

  3. I assume that this is the book translated as “Deadly words: Witchcraft in the bocage”? It seems to be out of print in English. However, it is available as a PDF download from this web site. Looks interesting …

  4. Yup, that’s the one (altho it’s worth reading in the original for those whose French is passable). Unquestionably a classic of both modern ethnography and anthropological theory (not sure if it’s still considered “controversial” in 2005).
    Howe’s bibliography reflects some interesting choices (to put it charitably). Within antrho, Bruce Kapferer’s and Michael Lambek’s stuff should take priority, I would think.
    A course on witchcraft without Favret-Saada is like a course on kinship without L-S!!
    Here’s more:
    (sorry I don’tknow how to put in links)

  5. Interesting that mainly males were accused of witchcraft. In Scandinavian Mythology, Frey is the male fertility god, one of the very few “male” fertility gods. I wonder if that has anything to do with males being accused…
    Witchery was recently attributed to rye ergot on a recent PBS show, with the combined data to show correlation between rye harvest, areas of rye farming, and women accused of witchcraft.

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