On the “Reality” of Witchcraft

The following are some thoughts that I shared with my Culture, Health, and Disease students on belief and reality. I thought I would share them here too. [1000 words]

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

In a seminar last week, we discussed the role of belief in healing and the assumptions and problems associated with the term. In short, 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 actually 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 the absence of physical evidence or memories of doing so. Some students remained perplexed.

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

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

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

A typical gut reaction to this response is, “Okay, I get that. But it’s not actually real.” Indeed, while it is not real in an objective, scientific sense, this response, however, offers little insight into how people live or experience realities where occult practices are a common idiom. Based on her reply, there are a few ways to look at this question of belief, evidence, and culpability. Here is how my Nankani friend might view it.

First, “I am a witch because I am a witch.” This is evident in the same way that someone born missing a limb is obviously missing a limb. Witchcraft is a substance or trait that cannot be denied. A person missing a leg cannot claim they have two. That would be ridiculous.

Second, we need to understand that parts of the “self” (that integrated sense of what it is that makes us who we feel we are), for some people, is not subject to control or choice. “Westerners” often want to believe that they are in control and entirely aware of their actions and motivations. Other cultures leave 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 is still responsible for. Often emotions like envy, animosity, or anger can point to activity within the shadow side. In this case, “I am a witch because I feel envy, ill will, and other powerful emotions toward others.” This feeling indexes the fact that the shadow side might be up to something that one cannot control. Hence, “I am a witch because a part of me that I am unaware of goes out into the night to eat people’s souls and sow misfortune. Because I feel ill will toward my relative and she then fell ill, I am responsible.”

Third, Nankani, mothers (an outsider within the kin system) automatically pass witchcraft to their children. And there is a good chance that most families know who is a witch. In fact, there are likely more people who are predisposed to witchcraft through heredity than not. It is known. If there is any question, families can call upon a specialist to find the offending witch. In this case, “I am a witch because the truth is known or will be found out anyway.”

Fourth, it is also possible, like in Levi-Strauss’ examples, that you become a witch when the community believes you are and assigns you to that social role. It is the community’s belief that 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. That must be the case.”

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 existence of a system that is vague or mysterious. For the Nankani and other cultures, however, the physical proof for a system like witchcraft is unnecessary because the system that caused the problem is a given. We don’t need to prove gravity exists. It is experienced and felt daily.

To place this into theoretical terms, this question emphasizes the importance of understanding how people occupy different ontological worlds. Witchcraft, despite how irrational it might seem 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 things 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 are responsible for grasping these ontological foundations that shape people’s realities—from our studies into spirit possession to consumer experiences.

“Witchcraft can’t hurt you,” said Laadi (pictured), reassuring me that 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.”

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Want to read more? Explore my other essays and check out my book.

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