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Copyright F.B. Welbourn 1968


Things go wrong - witchcraft and sorcery

When things are going well, few people bother to ask the reason why. It is only fairly recently that medical scientists have started to study health rather than disease; and, up to the eighteenth century, the pioneers of the natural sciences were often accused of being in league with the devil. 'Curiosity killed the cat'; and, even in our own day, there are vastly more people who enjoy driving a car than know the theory of an internal combustion engine. That is one reason why it is almost certainly wrong to regard religion as a primitive way of trying to explain how the universe works. Curiosity of that sort is found in only a small proportion of the population. At least in a traditional society, religious beliefs and practices are common to all.

The first chapter dealt with religion as an expression of group solidarity and continuity. Another function is that of dealing with disease and misfortune. The two stories at the beginning of Chapter One illustrate how ancestral ghosts may be regarded as the agents of disease. Another cause may be a curse - especially of a father or of his sister. A curse must be justified - that is to say, the one cursed must have done genuine harm, or shown disrespect to the curser. If it is unjust, it has no effect on the cursed and many rebound on the curser or his relations. If it is just, it may cause illness or even death of the cursed and can be active even after the death of the curser. Thus, one who knows that he has been justly cursed will try and make amends, and have the curse removed, before the curser dies. After that, there is no hope. Among the Maasai, an undetected murderer or thief may be publicly cursed; and many stories are told of criminals who suffered such hardship as a result of the curse that they confessed their crimes and took the appropriate punishment.

Another cause of disease may be the 'evil eye'. This is something which tends to run in families. Its owner has only to look on somebody else for that person to become ill. Such power may, of course, be used by its owners for evil purposes; but, often enough, its possession is regarded as a misfortune. Among the Marakwet, one who 'has eyes' will warn the inhabitants of a house he visits so that they may take the necessary precautions. The evil effects may sometimes be counteracted either by the owner spitting on the victim or by somebody with 'stronger' eyes.

Witches and sorcerers are found almost universally; and it is now usual to distinguish between these two types. Either may be male or female; and in some societies male witches predominate. The Azande believe that a man can transmit witchcraft only to his sons, a woman only to her daughters. Witchcraft is an innate power, which can be used by its owner only, to do harm to others. I may not know that I am a witch until, in a fit of anger, I say 'I wish X were dead'; and X dies. Making this discovery, I may be horrified and try to get rid of the power. On the other hand, I may welcome it and begin to associate with other witches. This association may take place only in immaterial form. Witches' bodies may be soundly asleep in their beds, while their witch-souls meet with the rest of the 'coven' to perform all sorts of strange activities. Among the Pondo of South Africa, witches are supposed to have animal 'familiars' of the opposite sex, with whom they have sexual relations. Among the Nyakyusa of Tanzania, they eat human flesh - again immaterially, for the only evidence is that the victim sickens and dies. In Ukaguru in Tanzania they travelled naked, walked upside-down and smeared their skins with white ashes; and this belief expresses, more clearly than any of the others, the fact that witchcraft - beliefs are an expression of deep - rooted fear that the normal order of the world may be disrupted, turned upside-down.

Sorcery, on the other hand, involves the use of material objects. There may be specialists, who have learnt their trade by apprenticeship or by being called by a spirit. But their goods are available to anyone who can buy them; and, in principle, anybody can learn the trade. There is no question of an innate power. Sorcerers may work for good, as well as bad, purposes; and it is extremely difficult to distinguish the techniques, except by 'intention'. But good and bad sorcerers are usually called by different names. At the same time it is recognised that a man who has achieved the power for good ends may be tempted to use it for evil.

The methods which they use are often called 'magic'; but if that word means the use of materials which cannot be scientifically demonstrated to produce the intended effect, it is almost certainly the wrong word. 'Magic' is, in fact, the art practised by the Magi, who were Persian sorcerers; and some sorcerers certainly know poisons which are pharmaceutically effective, although they do not distinguish them from other substances supposed to cause death but pharmaceutically neutral. At the other end of the scale, herbs used to cure disease may be pharmaceutically ineffective but may, on the other hand, contain ingredients which can be isolated and used in scientific medicine. Digitalis was discovered by taking seriously the use of foxgloves by English 'sorcerers'.

Herbs are widely used for curing disease. Knowledge of how to use them may be inherited; or it may be revealed in dreams; and there is ample evidence of one herb being preferred to another because it has proved, in practice, to be more effective. But perhaps more typical examples of sorcery are the use of haircuttings or nail-parings or faeces to work harm to the person from whom they came. For this reason, Baganda were extremely careful to bury these objects. More exciting were the charms which could be obtained only from specialists - to make a woman fertile, to preserve a man's life in war, to make a thief invisible. There were also the horns, mentioned in the last chapter, which could be used to bring luck to the owner or to harm an enemy at a distance.

Traditionally, a convicted witch or sorcerer was liable to meet an unpleasant end. In Buganda, sorcerers (there were no witches) were burnt alive. But, under British colonial rule in Africa, the practice of witchcraft and bad sorcery was made illegal (because of the difficulty of distinguishing between good and bad sorcery, this often meant both forms); and accusations of either, unless they could be proved to the satisfaction of a court of law, were also punishable. Such proof was almost impossible; and there is a widespread belief that the practice of both has therefore increased. In Ukaguru in Tanzania it is said that, since Christian wives cannot divorce their husbands if they tire of them, they now kill them by witchcraft instead.

This suggests that, however much these practices may have been hated, they nevertheless had a very definite social function. The fear of a curse was used to impose proper respect within a family. It was wise to fulfil one's obligations to a neighbour. Otherwise he might employ sorcery to get his rights. A suspected witch should not be offended for fear she might retaliate with her mysterious power. Outward relations, at least, were therefore kept smooth. A man who was more successful than his neighbours - with stock or crops or women - might be suspect of using sorcery to his own ends. There was therefore a pressure towards equality. In a small, intimate, society, with few technological resources for the material betterment of all, such sanctions might be important to preserve peace.

At the same time, the beliefs offered the opportunity of putting on others the blame for misfortune, and thus relieving the frustrations which misfortunes inevitably bring. After the Aberfan disaster in 1966 it was very noticeable that many people were concerned less with the impersonal, technological, causes than with the possibility of finding one man on whose carelessness the blame could be firmly placed. Similarly, it is not uncommon for examination candidates to blame their failure on the examiners who are said to have set 'unfair' questions. During the first three centuries A.D., Christians were commonly accused of being atheists, eating their own children and practising incest. During the Middle Ages, Christians made similar accusations against the Jews. Many Englishmen regard coloured immigrants - without any objective evidence to support them - as behaving contrary to all the accepted standards of English society. Like witches in Ukaguru, they are an 'inversion' of the normal order of things.

This is not, of course, the same as attributing to them a mysterious, immaterial, power; and this significant difference must be discussed later. But, given the fact that our society tends to think in terms of invisible electrical forces, while other societies think, rather, in terms of mana or its equivalent, there is here the same human need to put the blame on something outside ourselves, to find other persons (and not merely impersonal causes) who can be held responsible when things go wrong.

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