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A study of the meaning and history of witchcraft

The history of witch persecutions during the European Inquisition and Reformation have colored public understandings of witchcraft beliefs in morerecent times.

The most significant contribution of anthropological studies has been to show that the belief in witchcraft is encountered in nearly all continents of the world and that it continues to be an important feature of contemporary times. It is the generality of these beliefs that has attracted analytical attention. Anthropological studies have generally left open questions about the reality and actual performance of witchcraft.

  1. Witch-hunts did not exist in Europe before the mid-fifteenth century.
  2. It does mean that a failure to integrate fully into a new community was a potentially deadly problem. Evans-Pritchard defines witchcraft and sorcery and argues that both constitute logical explanations for unfortunate events.
  3. The assumption that diabolism was the defining feature of early modern witchcraft blinds us to the non-diabolic, indigenous concepts of witchcraft that lay at the roots of the persecutions. Could you expand on this apparent paradox between a secular court and manufactured heresy?

Instead, they have sought to unearth the social and psychological factors underlying witchcraft beliefs. Definitions Ethnographic studies across the globe have shown that, far from being confined to the distant past of Europe and New England, the belief in witchcraft is widely distributed in time and place—in Africa, Melanesia, the Pacific, Asia, and the Americas.

These studies have raised the problem of definition. Is it possible to define witchcraft in a way that makes sense cross-culturally, while at the same time respecting the particularities of specific social settings? Is it sensible to use the term originally used to denote consorts of Satan in 16th-century England to describe contemporary causers of misfortune in a post-Socialist Tanzanian village?

Do terms illuminate or distort complex realities on the ground? Crick 1979 opposes the cross-cultural use of the term witchcraft, whereas Meyer 1999 defends it.

A study of the meaning and history of witchcraft

The most commonly accepted definition was provided in Evans-Pritchard 1937a detailed, empathetic study of the Azande, of colonial Sudan, in which the author distinguishes between witchcraft and sorcery by their technique. Evans-Pritchard defines the former as the innate, inherited ability to cause misfortune or death.

  1. The history of witch persecutions during the European Inquisition and Reformation have colored public understandings of witchcraft beliefs in morerecent times. It is the similarities, not the differences, between witch trials and other criminal trials that are most instructive in this regard.
  2. Instead, they have sought to unearth the social and psychological factors underlying witchcraft beliefs.
  3. What conditions fostered the concept of the witch-hunt? Definitions Ethnographic studies across the globe have shown that, far from being confined to the distant past of Europe and New England, the belief in witchcraft is widely distributed in time and place—in Africa, Melanesia, the Pacific, Asia, and the Americas.
  4. The popularity of necromancy among the narrow upper crust of learned men contributed to their belief that magic was likely to be real, and provided the fabric for fears of secret attack.

For the Azande, witchcraft involves unconscious psychic powers emanating from a black swelling, located near the liver. By contrast, the Azande refer to sorcery as the performance of rituals, the uttering of spells, and the manipulation of organic substances, such as herbs, with the conscious intent of causing harm.

This distinction is widespread throughout East Africa. Stephen 1987 suggests that Melanesian societies construct an alternative contrast. The author describes sorcerers as dominant persons who deliberately use rituals to impose their will and mediate cosmic power both for constructive and destructive purposes.

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Political leaders often possess a monopoly of sorcery skills. By contrast, Stephen characterizes witches as socially unimportant persons who harbor totally destructive powers and carry blame for misfortune and death. Their powers cannot be controlled. They are accused, denounced, and punished. But, as with so many typologies, these distinctions do not hold true of all Melanesian societies see Patterson 1974 ; many authors therefore use the terms witch and witchcraft more broadly, to denote both types of persons and modes of action.

In this review, the word sorcery is retained only when used by authors in the original texts.

  • I first encountered the history of witchcraft as an undergraduate at Reed College, as I searched for a topic for my senior thesis;
  • In the most basic analysis, two key elements are necessary for witchcraft prosecution;
  • The author describes sorcerers as dominant persons who deliberately use rituals to impose their will and mediate cosmic power both for constructive and destructive purposes;
  • Is it sensible to use the term originally used to denote consorts of Satan in 16th-century England to describe contemporary causers of misfortune in a post-Socialist Tanzanian village?

Symbolically defined or analytically undone? Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 10. Crick argues that anthropologists should abandon the term witchcraft because its associations are determined by the history of Europe. Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande. Evans-Pritchard defines witchcraft and sorcery and argues that both constitute logical explanations for unfortunate events.

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Religion and modernity among the Ewe in Ghana. Meyer suggests that concepts from different cultures brought together under the umbrella of witchcraft do indeed have something in common. Sorcery and witchcraft in Melanesia.

Available online for purchase. Sorcerer and witch in Melanesia.