Magic and the Millennium: A Sociological Study of Religious Movements of Protest among Tribal and Third-World Peoples

By Bryan R. Wilson | Go to book overview

5
Thaumaturgical Responses and Social Organization

DISCUSSION of thaumaturgy must involve us, to an extent greater than is necessary in the case of other responses to the world, in consideration of the range of possibilities available for the organization of thaumaturgical movements. The reason for this lies in the aboriginal and indigenous character of thaumaturgy, which had no distinctive organizational form, but which was, in the hypothetical static state of an underdeveloped preliterate people, an integrated part of the total social system. Only when the social system had been disrupted were traditional thaumaturgical orientations likely to be challenged, the need for ritual practice denied, and natural and social forces explained in non- religious terms. Thaumaturgical beliefs persist among individuals, of course, even after the decay of the social order in which they had once occupied a more fully integrated place. The old associations such as cult societies may also continue, but as the society is affected by external influences--colonial governments, missions, new types of economic relationship--so the thaumaturge may increasingly act only for clients and less for the community as a whole. His status changes and he ceases to have an important public role even where he continues as a ceremonial functionary. Communal rites--rain-making or witch- finding or crop-blessing--have only perfunctory continuance or fall into complete desuetude. The thaumaturge becomes dependent on a voluntary clientele by whom the performance of this role is still demanded, from whom he can exact fees and by whom he is accorded status.

In such societies, however, the terms of voluntaristic allegiance, and the cultural pluralism which it implies, are little understood. Only the missions provide an introduction to a range of ideological choice and its consequences. They become possible models for the thaumaturge. But other bases of allegiance have existed in the traditional society, and these, too, may provide an appropriate model. Since the demand for thaumaturgical practice may in itself be enhanced by the disruption of traditional social organization, it may be entirely appropriate for the thaumaturge to attempt, on his own part, to adopt a tribal type of

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