I Doubt Some Foul Play

When I tell people that I research witchcraft, I am often asked whether people really believed in witchcraft. I like to pause when someone asks this, because there is a good answer to this question, and a true answer.

The good answer, the one that people want to hear, is the simple one: Yes, people believed in witches! People still believe in witches! This is a good answer because – whatever our own beliefs and uncertainties – it allows us to take a position. For many people, this is the entry-point into a discussion about how different the worldviews of other cultures and other times are from our own. For others, it is an opportunity to discuss strange experiences, to talk about the possibility that there is ‘something in it’, after all.

The true answer does not work as well in social situations.

It is truer – I think – to say that a great many people doubted – and continue to doubt – witches. In fact, this is how the anthropologist Nils Bubandt has described witchcraft, based on his fieldwork in Indonesia. Witchcraft, for Bubandt, is not a belief but an aporia, an unknowable absence at the heart of social life.

Witchcraft is a doubt in the same way as Shakespeare used the word in Hamlet. Reflecting on the unsettling apparition he has seen, Hamlet says to himself:

My father’s spirit- in arms? All is not well.
I doubt some foul play.

Like Hamlet’s feelings about his father’s ghost and what he signifies, witchcraft is not so much a certainty, as a suspicion, a fear, an indecision about how to explain something terrible, and unjust. As Bubandt points out in his book, not only are victims of harmful magic uncertain of whether witchcraft is to blame, or who the witch is, even the witch themselves can be unaware of the harm they are doing.

This is one reason why witnesses provided so much amusement to nineteenth-century courtrooms. They would comment on the potential magical powers of witches, but when asked if they really ‘believed’ this was true, their answers swerved away from certainty.

In a case from 1837, for instance, the judge got straight to the point with the first witness:

The judge: Do you believe in witches?
Reply: Well, there are those who say that the D… family have spells they cast on pigs, beg your pardon… to chouchemarde girls [causing them to have nightmares], and giving people all sorts of vermin.
The judge: But when all’s said and done, are you stupid enough to believe such ridiculous things?
Reply: Oh no! I’ve never ’ad fleas.

(L’Industriel de la Champagne 11th August 1838)

Witnesses in other cases often fell back on a kind of absolute empiricism like this, talking at great length about hearsay about what witches could do, only to eventually deflect the question of belief by retreating to their own experience. If they had not been bewitched, they had no grounds to state a firm belief.

But even those who had been bewitched had complex attitudes to the reality of their experiences. A worker from Pouilloux in the Saône et Loire who – according to a number of witnesses – killed a neighbour who he thought had bewitched him denied he had ever believed in witchcraft in his first interview after the crime. He maintained this attitude throughout his trial, claiming that his wife had believed in witches, and leading medical experts to speculate that he was an example of délire à deux, where the delusions of one individual were imprinted onto another (see Archives départementales de Saône-et-Loire, 2 U 738).

In fact, it is hard to find examples of individuals who straightforwardly defended the existence of witchcraft in court, even though there were obvious reasons why this might have been a good strategy. There were many cases where killers were let off the more serious charge of murder because juries sympathised with their fear of a witch, and preferred to convict on lesser charges, such as manslaughter. In at least one case from he 1830s, a witch-murderer was let off completely.

Despite the obvious advantages, then, of professing firm belief, witchcraft remained confusingly uncertain. Much like in Bubandt’s contemporary Indonesian example, witchcraft in nineteenth-century France was expressed not as belief, but as doubt.

The other question people sometimes ask is whether I believe in witchcraft.

If I had an audience with limitless patience and interest, I would tell them about the example of E.E. Evans-Pritchard. Evans-Pritchard’s 1937 book Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande is a foundational text for the academic study of sorcery and witchcraft, best-known for its argument that witchcraft is a rational and logical belief system.

But there’s another aspect of Evans-Pritchard’s book that I find interesting. His attitude to the reality of witchcraft is very similar to the paradoxical certain uncertainties that people involved in witchcraft disputes discuss. He is both undecided, yet strangely dogmatic.

Consider the famous section where he discusses his only first-hand encounter with mangu, or witchcraft:

I have only once seen witchcraft on its path. I had been sitting late in my hut writing notes. About midnight, before retiring, I took a spear and went for my usual nocturnal stroll. I was walking in the garden at the back of my hut, amongst banana trees, when I noticed a bright light passing at the back of my servants’ huts towards the homestead of a man called Tupoi. At this seemed worth investigation I followed its passage until a grass screen obscured the view. I ran quickly through my hut to the other side in order to see where the light was going to, but did not regain sight of it. I knew that one man, a member of my household, had a lamp that might have given off so bright a light, but next morning he told me that he had neither been out late at night nor had he used his lamp. There did not lack ready informants to tell me that what I had seen was witchcraft. Shortly afterwards, on the same morning, an old relative of Tupoi and an inmate of his homestead died. This event fully explained the light I had seen. I never discovered its real origin, which was possibly a handful of grass lit by some one on his way to defecate, but the coincidence of the direction along which the light moved and the subsequent death accorded well with Zande ideas. (1976 reprint, p.11)

Evans-Pritchard seems to say two incompatible things in this short passage: first, that he has really seen witchcraft, but second that there must be some other explanation for what he saw.

A kind of explanation for his indecision comes a few pages further into the book, where he writes – in racial terms that will trouble readers today – of the experience of ethnography, of participating in an alien culture.

I was aided in my understanding of the feelings of bewitched Azande by sharing, at least to some extent, like experiences. I tried to adapt myself to their culture by living the life of my hosts, as far as convenient, and by sharing their hopes and joys, apathy and sorrows. In many respects my life was like theirs: I suffered their illnesses; exploited the same food supplies; and adopted so far as possible their own patterns of behaviour with resultant enmities as well as friendships. In no department of their life was I more successful in ‘thinking black’, or as it should more correctly be said ‘feeling black’, than in the sphere of witchcraft. I, too, used to react to misfortunes in the idiom of witchcraft, and it was often an effort to check this lapse into unreason. (p.45)

There are two things that I think are worth taking from this aspect of Evans-Pritchard’s work.

The first is that researchers, like the subjects they research, participate in the uncertainties of witchcraft. Evans-Pritchard calls this a ‘lapse into unreason’, but his disgust with his own instinctive acceptance of witchcraft is mingled with pride. This is, after all, a passage about what a marvellous ethnographer he is, and how well he understands the Zande way of life.

But secondly this passage also shows how deeply Evans-Pritchard’s thought was influenced by assumptions about race. For Evans-Pritchard, believing in witches was am aspect of ‘thinking black’ or ‘feeling black’. This attitude was bound up with an idea of what anthropology was – the study of faraway and primitive peoples – which was gradually abandoned by anthropologists in the second half of the twentieth century. By the 1970s, Jeanne Favret-Saada was using the same intensive fieldwork techniques to get inside the worldview of the rural Norman unwitchers. Many Europeans continued and continue to believe in harmful witchcraft, and if Evans-Pritchard had had the ideas of a different time, in the 1920s he could just as well have found subjects in rural or small-town England, or even among the ritual magicians and Occultists of the interwar.

So yes, in a way, people really did believe in witches.

They still do.

But only if by “believe”, you understand something more complex than certain faith. People fear, worry about, and doubt the supernatural causes of harm. And that doubt spreads further and deeper through many cultures, including modern urban ones, than we sometimes admit. Most witchcraft is not women with pointy hats and pointier noses, riding on broomsticks, and it rarely involves few incredible details and unbelievable visions. Often it is nothing more dramatic the feelings that many people entertain at the edge of conscious certainty about the nefarious powers, or supernatural malevolence of those people we see everyday, and mistrust instinctively.



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