Witchcraft Research Paper

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The  scientific  study  of  witchcraft  has  been  concentrated  in two research fields clearly separated in time and space: historians’ studies of the enigmatic outburst of  witches’ trials  in early  modern  Europe,  and  anthropological  studies  of  the  role  of  witchcraft   in notably   African   and   Melanesian   societies   during colonial and postcolonial periods. In her introduction to a conference  volume commemorating the 30-year anniversary  of Evans-Pritchard’s classical study Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (southern Sudan),  Douglas  (1970 p. xiii) noted  with some apparent surprise the deep chasm between these two fields of study: ‘The anthropologists of the 1950s developed insights into the functioning of witch beliefs which seemed about as relevant to the European experience as if they came from another  planet. Dangerous in Europe, the same beliefs in Melanesia or Africa appeared  to be tame, even domesticated; they served useful functions  and were not expected to run amuck.’ In retrospect,  one might wish the second half of this quotation to be still true. The growing obsession over the last decades in many parts of Africa and Melanesia  with  new  forms  of  witchcraft   seems  to reflect, on the contrary, widespread  popular worries that it has ‘run amuck.’ Yet Douglas’s trenchant observation did highlight striking differences between the trajectories  of witchcraft studies by historians  and anthropologists and,  therefore,  offers  a  challenging starting point for any effort to come to a more general survey of the topic.

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The differences between the two fields are, indeed, so great that some authors  even objected to the use of the same term. Crick (1979), for instance, warned that the term witchcraft was so saturated with implications stemming from European history that anthropologists working  on  other  areas  had  better  avoid  the  term altogether.  One problem with such a puristic stance is that  this English term (or the corresponding French, Spanish, and Portuguese terms) have been adopted widely  by  people  throughout the  Southern   hemisphere.  A  more  substantial objection  might  be  that despite huge variations  the representations concerned revolve around basic conceptions  that are surprisingly similar.  In many parts  of the world notions  that  are now commonly translated as witchcraft refer not only to hidden human aggression, but also to more specific representations about   people  being  able  to  double themselves, leaving their bodies at night and flying off to nocturnal meetings with their accomplices.

Especially anthropologists, confronted by a bewildering  proliferation of  imaginaries   in  this  field, have tried to clarify things by formulating strict definitions and distinctions.  The best-known is Evans-Pritchard’s  proposition—on the basis of the distinctions   the   Zande,   the   subjects   of  his  first   book, supposedly  made—to  distinguish  witchcraft  and sorcery: the first referring to an inborn quality, the second to  the  use  of  acquired  means.  But  even  for  neighbouring areas in Africa this distinction proved difficult to maintain  in view of the fluidity  and  dynamics  of witchcraft  discourses.  More  recently,  some  authors (see Geschiere  1997) suggested  that  this  search  for clear-cut definitions and classifications risked to make anthropologists blind  to  the  surprising  dynamics  of these representations and their chameleonic  qualities which are crucial to understand how they can adapt themselves so easily to modern changes. In this treacherous field of study,  researchers  may  have  to resign themselves to working with fuzzy notions  that may exhibit a common core but at the same time engender highly variable and constantly changing elaborations. The differences between the historians’ and  the  anthropologists’ versions  of  witchcraft  are illustrative  of the  widely varying  implications  these notions  can acquire.

The  historians’  view paid  more  attention to  the dynamics of these representations. After all, a central question  to them was why persecutions  of witches— quite rare throughout what was sometimes called the ‘dark’  Middle   Ages—acquired   epidemic   forms   in several parts of Western and Central Europe, precisely at  the  dawn  of  modern   times  (sixteenth  and  seventeenth century). Historians like Robert  Mandrou or Norman Cohn explained this as the effect of a longer process of the diabolization of local witchcraft beliefs. Popular  worries about  perpetrators of evil within the local community (maleficium) increasingly became linked to ecclesiastically inspired visions of a Satan’s cult.  In  the  confessions  of people  accused  of witchcraft—increasingly obtained  under   torture   by  the henchmen  of  ecclesiastical  and  secular  courts—the Devil emerged as the leading figure at their nocturnal meetings. Some historians related the quite sudden proliferation of witch-hunts  after  1500, therefore,  to the disciplinary action of the State and the Church that ever  more  affected  the  local  communities.   Muchembled (1993), for instance, sees a clear distinction  in the archives  between  two  discourses:  the one of the witnesses who accuse their  neighbours  of destroying corps, cattle, and even human lives, and the one of the judges who force the accused to relate all this to their dealings with Satan.  Thus,  Muchembled construes  a direct link between the witch trials and the rise of the absolutist  State combined  with the religious struggles inspired  by Reformation and  Counter  Reformation; he  sees these  trials  as  an  emanation of  the  ‘forced acculturation’ of  popular culture  by  a  ‘triumphant centralization.’ However, in the beginning of the 1970s other historians, mainly working on England, had already  advanced  another  explanation, emphasizing rather the increased willingness of notably rural people to  accuse  their  fellow villagers.  Thomas  (1971), for instance,  related  this  to  the  deepening  inequalities within rural communities. Richer villagers increasingly resisted  older  obligations  to share  with their  poorer fellowmen, translating feelings of guilt about  this into witchcraft accusations.  In this view, State and Church were rather drawn into these affairs by pressures from below.

Thus,  there  seemed  to  be  a  more  or  less  clear contrast between a continental pattern—that for some time also affected Scotland  due to dynastic links with Denmark—in which State and Church  authorities played a key role with their obsession with the Devil; and  a quite  different  one,  prevailing  in England,  in which locals pressurized  the authorities to do something  about   the  maleficium  of  the  witches  in  their midst.   More   recently,  however,   this  contrast   was nuanced  by several authors  (Briggs 1996, Barry et al. 1996), who emphasized that  on the continent  as well, tensions and accusations within the local communities played a key role, while direct involvement of State or Church  authorities in the persecution  of witches was the exception—certainly in the most absolutist  States (France, Spain)—rather than the rule. Moreover,  they signaled that in England as well, Satan came to play an increasing  role  in the  witches’ confession,  be it  belatedly and less prominently. Yet it is clear, despite such different emphases, that in the historians’ interpretations witchcraft could not remain a local issue but had  to be studied  in interaction with broader power structures, notably the State and the Church. After all, the historians’ very sources—mainly  court archives— were   produced    by   the   latter.    An   attempt    by Ginzburg (1990) to relate the imaginary of the witches’ sabbath  to   a  set  of  folk   beliefs—going   back   to Neolithic times as some sort of substratum throughout Eurasia—received  a lukewarm  reception  and  clearly fell outside the historians’  main paradigm.

Anthropologists, in contrast, for a long time continued to address witchcraft  as a local issue, trying to resolve its riddles  by in-depth  studies  of local  relationships and conceptions. Yet their approaches were also   subject    to   quite    surprising    turns.    Evans-Pritchard’s  Azande study, often quoted  as a classic in the field, hardly  proved  to be a trendsetter. Its focus was on issues of cognition—on why the Azande combined very commensensical explanations with interpretations in terms  of occult  aggression.  But  it inspired a series of micropolitical  studies in which witchcraft was analyzed—in line with the functionalist ideas  that  dominated the  discipline  at  the  time—in relation  to social order and integration. In a series of in-depth  monographs of local societies in what at the time was called British Central Africa, anthropologists of the ‘Manchester  school’ studied witchcraft  accusations as a form of social control. Typical for this approach was Max Marwick’s characterization of witchcraft  as ‘a social strain  gauge’: as a measure  of sociopolitical  tensions,  but  also  as a way to  restore social order.  It was this interpretation that  produced the in retrospect somewhat amazing view of witchcraft as ‘tame’ and ‘domesticated’ (see quote from Douglas above).

It  is questionable whether  this  view applied  even during  the  colonial  period  under  the  pax  britannica (c.q.  gallica). But  it is clear that  it hardly  prepared anthropologists to confront the quite spectacular dynamics  of  representations of  the  occult  after  Independence.  It is difficult to decide whether  accusations   and   rumors,   let  alone   actions,   in  terms   of witchcraft  increased  after  Independence (just  as the old debate among anthropologists on whether witchcraft ‘increased’ or ‘decreased’ after the colonial conquest  had  no  conclusive  ending).  But  it is quite clear that it came out into the open, in many parts of postcolonial Africa.  Witchcraft   became  a  hotly  debated  issue, not  only  in the  street  rumors  of Radio Trottoir,  but  also in newspapers,  on TV, etc. It was striking, moreover,  that rumors  and references to the occult forces proliferated especially in the more modern sectors of society: in relation  to modern  forms of entrepreneurship, national  politics, sport, and the new institutions for healthcare and education. The view, to many still self-evident, of witchcraft  as a ‘traditional’ relict that will automatically disappear with modernization—‘witchcraft will disappear with electric light’ as  a  Dutch   missionary   in  Cameroon  claimed   in 1971—became difficult to maintain  in view of the popular tendency  to  address  precisely  such  modern developments in terms of these occult discourses. Neither did the anthropological image of witchcraft as a  local  phenomenon prove  to  be  of  much  use  for understanding  the  spectacular   increase  in  scale  of these rumors that acquired national or even transnational  dimensions.  No wonder that  after the 1960s anthropologists tended to abandon the topic to theologians and journalists. An approach in terms of social order proved  to be of little help in analyzing the new transformations of these local beliefs.

In many parts of Africa, for instance, there was increasing popular concern about  new forms of witchcraft  that were explicitly related to the nouveaux riches who  were supposed  to  accumulate  wealth  by exploiting the labor of their witchcraft  victims. Often people   made   a  contrast   between   older   forms   of witchcraft  in which the victims were ‘eaten’ and  the new one of ‘selling people,’ that  is, turning  them into some  sort  of zombies  and  selling them  to  work  on ‘invisible plantations.’ The fear  of such new threats triggered a frantic search for new forms of protection, for instance, urgent appeals to the State authorities to intervene.  The  pressing  character   of  the  witchcraft issue was further highlighted by the lethal witch-hunts that marked  the end of Apartheid in the northeastern part  of  South  Africa—young men,  encouraged   by nganga (witch-doctors) and  claiming  to  act  as local representatives   of  the  ANC,   executing  dozens   of ‘witches’ (Niehaus  1993). The half-hearted implications of State authorities in such witch-hunts in many parts  of the continent  made it all the more urgent  to gain deeper insight into the modern dynamics of witchcraft  discourses.

No wonder that since the early 1990s there has been a new wave of witchcraft studies in Africa and Melanesia,  notably  by anthropologists concentrating on  the  relation   with  popular views of  ‘modernity’ —that   is,  the   dreams   of  the   modern,   in  all  its varieties, that effect ever wider strata of the population (cf. Comaroff and  Comaroff 1993, Geschiere  1997). This linking of witchcraft and modernity, according to some  even  a  new  paradigm,  implied  attention to particular aspects  that  could  explain  the  continuing resilience of these local beliefs—notably  their circular character, their  moral  ambiguity,  and  their  striking capacity  to relate local realities of the family and the home to global processes of change.

The circularity of witchcraft discourses is expressed most vividly in the paradox that  the main protection against  witchcraft  often  is to  be sought  in the  very same field. In many parts  of Africa, for instance,  the nganga  (healer)   is  supposed   to   be  able   to   offer protection and  healing  only  because  of his (or  her) overdeveloped  witchcraft.  In some societies there is a consistent effort to conceptually or even institutionally separate  the  nganga’s (or  the  chief’s) occult  power from  the evil forces of the witches. Then  witchcraft seems to be, indeed, unequivocally evil. But in practice, such distinctions  between positive and negative forms of occult power are often highly precarious and controversial. In many African societies, for instance, nganga remain highly ambivalent  figures—healers but at the same time suspect because of their dealings with extremely dangerous  forces. The nganga is, therefore, also a striking example of the moral ambiguity of these forces. Basically these forces are certainly evil, but—as in the nganga’s case—they can be canalized and used in a constructive  way. In this more positive sense, witchcraft—it  is in such  a context  that  this  English translation of African notions becomes, indeed, problematic—can  even be seen as a precondition for accumulating wealth  and  power.  This applies especially to  the  new modes  of enrichment  that  seem to bring   out   ever  more   starkly   the   ambivalence   of witchcraft conceptions: the rumors, mentioned above, about   the  new  witchcraft   of  wealth  that  turns  its victims  into  zombie-laborers  express  horror   about such treacherous attacks, but also fascination with the new riches this acquired.  It is these ambiguities  that give witchcraft   discourses  their  elasticity  and  their surprising capacity to relate the global to the local. In most parts  of Africa and  Melanesia  these discourses still are rooted  strongly in the local setting, notably in the intimacy of kinship: witches are supposed to have a special hold  over their  kin or in any case to work through an ally ‘within.’ Yet, the same discourses are invoked to cope with the unsettling modern developments:  the  vagaries  of  the  world-market, the dazzling  riches  of the  happy  few and  the  recurrent mishap of the many in their pursuit  of the new forms of  wealth.  In  such  contexts,  witchcraft  rumors  can attain  truly global dimensions  referring, for instance, to the circulation of zombies on a world scale or to the appropriation of  extremely  potent   ‘medicine’ from Europe  or India.

Such anxieties about hidden aspects of modern developments  are  certainly  not  special to  Africa  or Melanesia (cf. the seminal studies by Taussig 1987 and Kapferer  1997 on, respectively, Amazonia  and Sri Lanka).  The new anthropological interest in the paradoxical link  between  witchcraft  and  modernity inspires even an alternative reading of developments in what  are thought to  be typically  ‘modern’  societies. Already in the 1970s, the anthropologist Favret-Saada (1977) highlighted  the surprising  resilience of witchcraft  practices  in the  French  countryside  in a truly innovative  analysis  of how  words  are  charged  with power, but also of how the researcher herself became unavoidably involved.  In  a  more  direct  relation  to modern  forms  of politics  and  communication, Geschiere (in Meyer and Pels in press) drew attention to  intriguing   parallels   between   witch-doctors and ‘spin-doctors’  in respectively  African  and  American politics—both  manipulating  esoteric  expertise  and ‘public secrets’ that  shroud  the exercise of power.  In her detailed analysis of rumors on Satanism and child abuse  in  present-day   England,  La  Fontaine (1998) demonstrated the relevance of anthropological witchcraft studies on Africa and Melanesia in such a modern context. The broader interest of new directions  in the study of witchcraft,  often still seen as the archetype of the traditional, is precisely that  they help to debunk simplistic opposition between modern and traditional, science and  magic, transparent and  opaque,  or even more simply between the West and the rest. Comparative studies, like the one mentioned in this paragraph, show  that  even  in  the  West  modernity retains its own forms of enchantment and opacity.


  1. Barry J, Hester  M, Roberts  G (eds.) 1996 Witchcraft  in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  2. Briggs B 1996 Witches & Neighbours. Fortuna Press, London
  3. Comaroff J, Comaroff J (eds.) 1993 Modernity and its Malcontents. Chicago University  Press, Chicago
  4. Crick M 1979 Anthropologists’ witchcraft: symbolically defined or analytically undone? Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 10: 139–46
  5. Douglas M (ed.) 1970 Witchcraft  Confessions and Accusations. Tavistock,  London
  6. Favret-Saada J 1977 Les mots, la mort, les sorts. Gallimard, Paris
  7. Geschiere P 1997 The Modernity of Witchcraft, Politics and the Occult  in Postcolonial    University  Press  of  Virginia, Charlottesville, VI
  8. Ginzburg C 1990 Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath. Hutchinson Radius,  London
  9. Kapferer B 1997 The Feast of the Sorcerer. Chicago University Press, Chicago
  10. La Fontaine J S 1998 Speak of the Devil, Tales of Satanic Abuse in Contemporary England. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  11. Meyer B, Pels P (eds.) in press Magic and Modernity. Stanford University  Press, Stanford, CA
  12. Muchembled R 1993 Le roi et la sorciere: l’Europe des buchers. Desclee, Paris
  13. Niehaus I   1993   Witch   hunting    and   political   legitimacy: continuity  and  change in Green  Valley, Lebowa  1930–1991. Africa 63(4): 498–529
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  15. Taussig M  1987 Shamanism,  Colonialism  and the  Wild  Chicago University  Press, Chicago
  16. Thomas K 1971 Religion and the Decline of Magic. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London
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