Adam Jones recently posted an entry on ThinkingThroughChristianity about the historical traditions (or, as he argued, the lack thereof!) for witchcraft in the Western world. You can read it here. Adam and I had an interesting discussion later about the role of witchcraft in non-Western cultures, and he asked me to write a little about it for as part of our October series. NOTE: This brief introductory paragraph was supposed to: 1) explain why in the world someone would write about this topic on this blog, and 2) quickly pass the blame if you find it boring!
In particular I want to focus on witchcraft within a non-Western worldview called “animism.” Animism is usually found in today’s world in tribal cultures in the Americas, Africa, or Asia. Now there is quite a bit of variety within animistic religious systems — just as you could talk about “monotheism” as a category, but still have great variety between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — but here are some general features of an animistic worldview:
*There is no distinction between the physical world and the spiritual world. They occupy the exact same area. As a result of this, the distinction between the secular and the sacred is a false dichotomy in an animistic worldview. It also often means that there is seldom (if ever) a strictly natural reason for something. The spirit world affects every facet of daily life and permeates the physical world.
You’re looking at a busted radiator and potentially a few angry spirits clogging the exhaust system.
*The spirit beings in an animistic system are amoral. What I mean is that there are not really good or evil spirits at work in the world, at least not in the sense Westerners might think about issues of good and evil. That’s not to say that there aren’t malevolent spirits or ones that cause more harm than good, but in other words, animistic societies aren’t worried about choosing the right side (e.g. God vs. Satan in Christianity) or hoping their side wins (e.g. some dualist systems). In fact, there aren’t “sides” at all. It’s an understanding of the spirit world based on power and pragmatism, more than concepts of right or wrong (Which is not to say that animists aren’t moral people! Don’t go there!) The problem with amoral beings, of course, is that they’re just as likely to be for you as against you … and much of the spirit world in an animistic system can be quite capricious and fickle in their actions.
Think defense lawyers with [supernatural] power ties!
*The goal of interactions with the spirit world in an animistic worldview, then, is to keep daily life ordered and stable. Please the right spirits through the right actions, convince the right spirits to help you or at least leave you the heck alone, align the community with the world in a proper way — these are the goal of animistic “religious” life.
So why is witchcraft such a big deal in animistic cultures? Shouldn’t everyone just be painting with the all the colors of the wind or [error: awkward and embarrassing stereotype not found]? Well, let’s imagine that you live in a village of a couple hundred people or so. Now just to make things interesting, let’s give everyone in the village a sawed-off shotgun and a ski mask, just in case they feel like solving interpersonal conflicts through means other than hugging it out. So now we have a couple of hundred people with the ability to pretty much hurt whoever they want with anonymity and impunity. Got it?
“Rumor has it you think it’s funny to eat other people’s lunches out of the refrigerator at work!
Now remember how spirit beings are amoral and potentially a bit capricious when it comes to how they interact with humanity? This means you have to make sure you don’t tick off the spirit world … but it also means you have to make sure you don’t tick off your neighbor, either! Maybe your neighbor has more spiritual knowledge and power than you. Maybe he decides the best way to handle your conflict is to convince some spirit beings that your crops need to fail, or even that you need to die. In other words, your disgruntled neighbor might turn to manipulation of spiritual power … or witchcraft! (Finally! A tie-in!) And since sending a spirit after someone is really an anonymous action, you never know who is trying to get you via the spirit world.
Let’s see: I think I flipped off ten people on the road yesterday. This could have been Bob, or Joe, or Sally, or …
Then there are individuals who decide that the whole disgruntled member of the community gig is pretty sweet and decide to do it full-time. This person now becomes a witch. (It’s helpful to distinguish between witches and other spiritually powerful individuals in animistic societies, such as shamans, who use their power for the community … though, don’t tick them off, either, and these lines aren’t always crystal clear in every society.) A witch in an animistic context, then, is someone who has decided to say, “screw the community!” and accumulates great spiritual power for their own individual purposes and desires.
Imagine someone with tremendous connections and influence in the spirit world who doesn’t give a rat’s behind if your village survives, and in fact is likely to work against that end in some ways? This is why animistic societies can be just as harsh (or harsher) with those suspected to be witches as their counterparts in medieval peasant society, et al. That is, if they think the witch isn’t so powerful as to be not worth messing with. Then you just do your best to not get on the witch’s bad side.
What is interesting to me is that, despite the differing ways that witchcraft is understood in Western and non-Western cultures, there are surprising similarities:
*Witchcraft is attractive because it gives access to real power outside of traditional ways of pursuing power within society or other established means (e.g. organized religion in Western cultures). For those who don’t want to be part of society or other establishments or feel rejected by society or those establishments, witchcraft becomes a way of making it through the world — of claiming a sense of belonging, power, and purpose … and even taking revenge as an outcast.
*Witchcraft is terrifying because it means unimaginable power wielded by someone whose motives you don’t know, and which you suspect as not being the best: they sided with the wrong side (e.g. Satan in Western cultures) or they are selfish and not committed to the good of the community (animistic cultures)
Cranky, old scholars still clinging to Marxism as a catch-all interpretive framework: History’s witches.
It’s fascinating to me that, although various cultures and worldviews can conceive of supernatural power and beings in very different ways, it’s very possible that we are all attracted to and repulsed by supernatural power (in this case, witchcraft) for somewhat universal reasons!
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