magic, witchcraft, and sorcery

magic, witchcraft, and sorcery
The art of performing charms, spells, and rituals, to seek to control events or govern certain natural or supernatural forces. Magic can be good, as in love magic or the canoe magic of the Trobriand Islanders before a hazardous voyage. It can also be malevolent in the sense of witchcraft or sorcery. Sorcery implies magic where powers are intentionally used for a harmful purpose, often involving artificial means. Witchcraft implies the possession of a supernatural power through a pact with evil spirits; this power may be exerted involuntarily. Magic, witchcraft, and sorcery generally function at the level of the individual, and often in opposition to organized religions . Magical beliefs deal with the individual crises and acts of fate which religious morality cannot explain.
Initial attempts to explain magical beliefs foundered on nineteenth-century scientism and simplistic psychological theories. For Lucien Léevy-Bruhl (Primitive Mentality, 1922), magic was a form of ‘pre-logical thought’, which was incommensurable with and antithetical to Western scientific thought. In Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough (1900) an evolutionary typology postulated a developmental progression from magic to religion to science. Bronislaw Malinowski (Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays, 1948) shared many of the prejudices of earlier approaches towards magic and explained it as an essentially meaningless emotional response to the unknown and otherwise uncontrollable. Magic thus served a psychological function only when technical knowledge was inadequate.
Later anthropological approaches have seen magic as containing a symbolic logic and meaning, and have sought to place it into a context of the cosmology and social relations of the people concerned. This approach derives fundamentally from E. E. Evans-Pritchard's classic study of Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937). This was one of the first attempts to study in detail the beliefs and practices relating to magic, witchcraft, and sorcery. The Azande of Southern Sudan invoke witchcraft to explain nearly any misfortune that could befall a person. All deaths are seen to be caused by witchcraft. This explanatory framework does not posit witchcraft as a cause of misfortune. The Azande know that misfortunes are part of life: that houses are eaten by termites and fall down, that people become ill if they drink bad water, and so on. However, witchcraft ideas explain why a misfortune happens to a particular person at a particular time; that is, they answer the vital question ‘Why me? Why now?’ (‘Why did the termites destroy my house, rather than another, and why did it collapse when I was inside, rather than at another time?’)
Among the Azande, witchcraft is the domain only of commoners, who use internal psychic powers to do harm. Witchcraft is a physical property, located in the intestines, which allows a witch to go out at night and harm other people. Good magic is seen to be moral, and uses spells, medicines, and herbs as means for fighting witchcraft. Bad magic, or sorcery, is performed only by the Azande nobility, and is seen to be more deadly than witchcraft. Unlike witchcraft, the apparatus of sorcery is external to people, involving spells, rites, and medicines. If a misfortune is significant, a diviner is called in to determine who is the witch causing the malaise, and to convince that person to repent and remove the spell. Accusations tend to occur in disputes where a person is not likely to get retribution through the chief's court. Evans-Pritchard showed how such accusations are related to the points of social tension within Azande social organization. In general, other anthropologists have followed this approach, arguing that witchcraft beliefs are functional to maintaining the order of society by resolving tensions, aggression, and envy. For example, they may function as a levelling mechanism, with individuals who amass too much power or wealth often being accused of acquiring these by means of witchcraft. However, other researchers have argued that witchcraft beliefs generate tensions, as well as helping to resolve them.
Some analysts have located their study of witchcraft within the context of colonialism . Clyde Kluckhohn (Navajo Witchcraft, 1944) argued that Navajo witchcraft ideas served to channel tensions and aggressions created by the larger White society. InMoon, Sun and Witches (1987), Irene Silverblatt argued that female witches formed an integral part of an anti-colonial movement in the Andes.
Ideas about magic and witchcraft have sparked off a lengthy, acrimonious, and unresolved debate about the rationality or otherwise of non-Western peoples, a debate that has grown to engage philosophers and sociologists as well as anthropologists (see, for example,, Rationality, 1970). Evans-Pritchard insisted that the Azande have two distinct models of apprehending the world, one mystical and the other mundane, or empirical. These are invoked at different levels of explanation: witchcraft is invoked to explain why tragedy befalls people; how the events themselves occur is explained in a prosaic way which Europeans think to be empirically true. The Azande, according to Evans-Pritchard, are logical but wrong. In opposition to this view, relativists such as Peter Winch (The Idea of a Social Science, 1958) have argued that each society constructs its own notions of reality and rationality, and all are equally valid. Anthropologists, therefore, should not judge alien beliefs like witchcraft on the basis of a Western discourse of science. Many of these issues are discussed, and their sociological implications made clear, in’s ‘How Real is the Charmed Circle in African and Western Thought?’, Africa (1973). See also cultural relativism.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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