On the “Reality” of Witchcraft

The following are some thoughts I shared with my Culture, Health, and Disease students on belief and reality. 

“Why would anyone admit they are a sorcerer or a witch?” is a question that arises when I teach topics related to witchcraft, sorcery, and belief. This is a well-trod theme for anthropologists. However, it remains significant because it is central to how culture shapes our realities. And asking it can help explain what we mean when we talk about diverse ontologies and the lived reality of beliefs.

In a recent seminar, we discussed the role of belief in healing and the assumptions and problems associated with the term. We often hold beliefs to be false, subjective, or irrational, while their opposite, knowledge, is objective and true (see Byron Good). We considered people’s belief in magic while discussing Levi-Strauss’ classic The Sorcerer and His Magic (1963). Students questioned why the Zuni boy confessed to sorcery when it was likely that he was not guilty of the accusations (you can read a summary of the chapter here). I also shared similar stories of how people accused of practicing witchcraft or using sorcery admitted guilt despite no evidence or memories of doing so. Students remained perplexed.

While walking home from class, I pondered confessions, the role of evidence, and people’s  beliefs in witchcraft. I reflected on difficulties present for people who do not come from a lifeworld where witchcraft exists to grasp how it works and its inner “reality” as lived. Until several years ago, I also didn’t get it.

While conducting fieldwork in Ghana, I encountered witches, sorcerers, and witchcraft accounts. Like my students, I intellectually grasped witchcraft, but one question puzzled me: Why would someone declare, particularly in the absence of evidence, that they are a witch, knowing they will face social sanctions, violence, or even death? One friend’s direct explanation helped shift my thoughts.

“People admit to being witches because they are,” she said.

A typical gut response is: “Okay, I get it. But it’s not real.” While not real in an objective, scientific sense, this type of reply, however, offers little insight into how people live or experience realities where occult practices are a familiar idiom. Based on her reply, we can look at the question of belief, evidence, and culpability from several perspectives. Here is how my Nankani friend might view it.

First, “I am a witch because I am a witch.” This is as evident as someone born without a limb is missing a limb. Witchcraft substance or traits cannot be refuted. A person missing a leg cannot claim they have two.

Second, we need to consider how parts of the “self” (the integrated sense of what makes us who we feel we are), for some people, is not subject to control or choice. Westerners want to believe they are in control and aware of their actions and motivations. Other cultures have more room for an unconscious or a shadow side—a part of the self that one is unacquainted with or unaware of. A part that one does not control yet bears responsibility for. Often emotions like envy, animosity, or anger can point to activity within the shadow side. Here, “I am a witch because I feel envy, ill will, and other powerful emotions toward others.” This sentiment indexes how one’s shadow might be up to something that one cannot control. Hence, “I am a witch because a part of me I cannot know or control goes out into the night to eat people’s souls and sow misfortune. Since I have ill will toward my relative and she then became sick, I am responsible.”

Third, Nankani mothers (an outsider within the kin system) pass witchcraft to their children. Most people know who is a witch. There are likely more people inclined to witchcraft through heredity than not. If any questions emerge, families call upon a specialist to locate the offending witch. Here, “I am a witch because the truth is already established or everyone will figure it out soon enough.”

Fourth, it is also possible, as Levi-Strauss notes, that you become a witch when the community believes you are and assigns you to that social role. In this case, the community’s belief renders it real. Considered in the context of the above explanations, “If these 40 people say I am a witch who am I to know or argue.”

Finally, Western understandings work from a position that what is not visible, or that which is questionable, can be hidden or denied. We require proof to assign guilt. In Levi-Strauss’ Zuni case, proof was necessary to substantiate the reality of a system that is vague or mysterious. For the Nankani and other cultures, however, the physical proof for witchcraft is unnecessary because what caused the problem is a given. We need not prove gravity exists. It is experienced daily.

To put this into theoretical terms, this question underscores the need to consider how people embody different ontological worlds. Witchcraft, despite how irrational it might be to outsiders, is a condition of their ontology. What does that mean? Ontology is Being, existence, and reality. Ontology is the underlying system that gives rise to forms, ideas, and objects that exist in people’s “reality.” It is the basis for being in that culture and for making sense of the world. As ethnographers, we should appreciate these ontological foundations that construct people’s realities—from studies into spirit possession to consumer experiences.

“Witchcraft can’t hurt you,” said Laadi (pictured), reassuring me I was not at risk of being attacked. “It’s because you don’t believe in it. But it is powerful. And it works for those that do.”

Want more? Check out my book “Spirit Children” here and my other essays here


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