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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.
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