Witchcraft in Local and Global Perspectives

By Mitchell, Stephen A.; Collins, Derek et al. | Western Folklore, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Witchcraft in Local and Global Perspectives


Mitchell, Stephen A., Collins, Derek, Tangherlini, Timothy R., Western Folklore


Introduction

Constructions of witchcraft, and accusations of its practice, occupy places of central importance in most cultural belief systems. Popularly viewed in contemporary Western societies mainly as the stuff of early modern European history (e.g., Kittredge 1929), our conception and understanding of witchcraft outside that particular temporal and geographical box has grown substantially in recent decades, and we now understand witchcraft and magic as wide-spread phenomena in human history and human geodiversity. And the social and academic need for a clearer understanding of witchcraft has rarely been greater, both in Western contexts and in non-Western ones. The rise, particularly strong in European, Australian and North American venues, of neo-paganism, including various strains of witchcraft practices (e.g. Gardnerian Wicca, Feminist Dianic witchcraft, hedge witches, Faerie witchcraft), makes this form of nature-oriented worship one of the quickest growing and most vibrant, if still numerically small, of religious groups. In reaction to such growth, some traditional institutions have sometimes felt-and been-threatened, not least constitutional ones, such as the right to freedom of religion, which can occur when practices outside those associated with "The People of the Book" are encountered.' At the other end of the spectrum, mainly in nonWestern contexts, we have in the past ten years witnessed a precipitous rise in the identification and persecution of people accused of practicing malefic magic, clearly a different behavioral category than that espoused by Western neo-pagans, yet a group tied to them by the bonds of history, the often-shared perceptions of their larger societies, and their own attempts to exploit these connections (cf. Purkiss 1996, Ellis 2000). From sub-Saharan Africa to South Asia, the Far East and Latin America, most prominently (but also true to a lesser degree in North America and Europe) exorcisms, vigilantism, and mob violence-frequently including executions-have looked to resolve the perceived problem of witchcraft. In short, although we have now entered the 21st century, we are far from having learned all the lessons about collective hysteria and intolerance that need to be drawn from the study of witchcraft.

True to this sense of the largely unbounded temporal and geographical concern with witchcraft, the case studies in this volume of Western Folklore, arranged chronologically, explore witchcraft beliefs and accusations in a number of cultural milieux-4th-century B.C.E Greece, 19th-century England and Denmark-and look to investigate the relationship between learned, "global" discourses on witchcraft, on the one hand, and local folk belief, on the other. In addition to assessing available methodologies for the study of witchcraft, a central concern for each of the essays is how, for example, the elite community may appropriate local belief for its own ends (or directly reject it), or how it reinterprets local belief through its own, implicitly invidious, premises, simultaneously to attack and to distinguish itself from such local belief (cf. most recently, Clark 1997). Given their prominence in many cultures, belief in witchcraft and the existence of witch-hunting-and historical European constructions of them in particular-are topics that have attracted much scholarly attention in a number of different fields in the humanities and social sciences. Most of this energy, however, has focused on what modern-day Wiccans style "The Burning Times," that is, when witch-hunts in Western Europe reached their zenith in the post-Reformation era (roughly 1550-1650). Attention to these historical events has, however, not been without reference to the phenomena observed in a variety of living cultures. Particularly after Evans-Pritchard's classic study of Zande witchcraft (Evans-Pritchard 1937), functionalist approaches to witchcraft in one form or another dominated discussions of the topic (cf. …

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