Description and Comparison of Witchcraft in Two Contemporary Societies
Witchcraft, derived from the old English noun ‘Wicca’ and ‘wiccian’ and is often referred to as the practices of magical skills and abilities such as spell casting, conjuring the dead, demonology, etc., has played an important role in historical developments, distinct cultural meaning systems, and language variations in societies across the world1. These practices of rituals or ‘black magic’ were often opposed and punished in society, which usually involve the executions of the accused individuals such as burning, hanging, beheading, etc. Furthermore, witchcraft has many different meanings corresponding to different people and societies, for example, the original concept of witchcraft within the Europeans assumed that witchcraft is a form of sorcery, a combination of one’s beliefs and practices that is targeted at manipulating nature for the benefit of one1. While witchcraft in America stresses the relationship between contemporary groups of witches and the earlier practitioners of witchcraft, such as the medieval European witches2. Whereas in African societies, such as the Nupe and the Banyang, witchcraft carries different meanings which have a special significance and value according to their cultures and beliefs. In another word, despite that the two societies are located in the same country, there are many similarities and differences in the beliefs, values, and rituals of witchcraft.
Numerous practices of witchcraft had been observed and recorded in African societies throughout history and many anthropologists observed the practices and beliefs of such sorcery in these societies, displaying the many different narratives. Anthropologists and researchers (Historians, etc.) such as Issa Schapera, who recorded signs of witchcraft in the Tswana of Botswana in 1825 and Hans Werner Debrunner, who recorded activities of witchcraft were already noticeable around the middle of the nineteenth century1, shown that witchcraft has played a role in the life of the African societies early in the past.
For instance, one of the many narratives could be seen in the everyday life of the Banyang, a tribe located at the West of Cameroon. People in the tribe believed that witchcraft plays a role in the day-to-day, public, and moral activities within one which are affected by the interest and strength that are concealed inside the individual, by which they explain this ‘strength’ in terms of ‘were-animals’ that lies within one’s body3. ‘Were-animals’, also referred to as babu, is understood as a projection of oneself and is said to move in shadows or a spirit form with the conscious self when one lies inert and unconscious at home at night, where their trace of movements can only be seen by witches or the “people with eyes”3. However, not all of these animals are believed to do harm. In fact, the animals who do harm are said to represent strength in fighting and sharpness of temperaments such as the owl, python, leopard, elephant, bush, wasp, and hippopotamus. On the contrary, the ones that do not do harm are believed to be associated with one’s special abilities and qualities of temperament which lie within the skin and the muscles3. In addition, the belief of ‘were-animals’ are used to explain the circumstances of one’s overall health, such as illness and death, as well. It is believed that the results of one’s illness and death are due to the evil that they had done with the ‘were-animals’ and these are considered practices of witchcraft, in which consequently when one does not confess to their sins, it is said that one cannot restore their health and will be harmed by the njaw, a religious power believed to protect the community from evil3. In essence, this is one of the many narratives and beliefs of witchcraft that were present in the society of Africa.
On the other hand, another narrative of witchcraft can be seen in the life and culture of the Nupe, an ethnic group located in Nigeria. In Nupe society, witchcraft is split into two categories: men and women. The women, called gâci, practice witchcraft such as soul-eating, invisibility, separation of the soul from the body, etc., whereas the men are said to have powers that are much weaker and less specific4. According to the Nupe, witchcraft is not a hereditary power, not an innate capacity of man, yet which must be acquired from another who possesses the works of witchcraft. Correspondingly, witchcraft is also considered an evil practice, such as the act of murder for evil reasons that cannot be measured by social or human standards, in which the most severe punishment should be assigned to the individual: death4. Furthermore, in the opinions of the Nupe, every witch is said to have fire come out of their mouth and when faced with a more powerful colleague, tears are said to spring from their eyes4. Aside from the description of witches and witchcraft, the Nupe can come across quite extreme when faced with the event of dealing with accused individuals. In February 1932, three women that were accused of practicing witchcraft were stoned to death by the enraged people of Bida, a local government area in Niger State, when trying to defend themselves. When it comes to the allegation of, and the fight against witchcraft practices, the Nupe have several methods of confronting witchcraft. According to the Nupe, married women are suspected more than those who are unmarried, and the older the women, the stronger is the suspicion because it is thought that their power of is stronger as age increases4. Furthermore, the fight against witchcraft is quite simple for the Nupe, where the chief (a man), who is believed to have the ability to recognize a witch without fail, summons the accused individual, then asks her to confess her evil doings, and orders her to right the wrongs that she had done4. However, if the alleged witch refuses to fix their wrongdoings, the individual is then expelled from the village forever. It is also believed that in order to encounter and fight witchcraft, one must possess the magic of witchcraft oneself4. All things considered, these are the beliefs and methods of confronting witches and witchcraft of the Nupe, one of the many beliefs of witchcraft in African societies.
In comparison, although the African societies of the Nupe and the Banyang are located rather close to one another, their beliefs and views of witchcraft have obvious similarities and differences. Generally, both societies believed that witches possess special abilities and powers to utilize magic or in this case witchcraft, to carry out actions that are deemed evil, and the practices of witchcraft are punished. However, the differences between the two societies arise in which the Banyang refers to witchcraft as the influence of the spirit of ‘were-animals’ that lies within one’s soul and body, causing them to engage in evil acts, whereas the Nupe believes that firstly, magic or witchcraft is learned from an experienced witch, and secondly, that women are the ones who usually possesses the power of witchcraft and are often alleged, witches. Finally, in comparing the punishment of witchcraft, the Banyang believes that a witch will be punished by a religious power that protects the society from evil, the njaw3, while the Nupe punishes the witches with expulsion from the village/society and more seriously, death. Nevertheless, both societies display an important aspect of the relationship between witchcraft and society. In particular, it can be seen that the practices of witchcraft offer “an antidote to a narrow, de-personalized picture of nature [and] a religious model of tolerance – of celebration – of difference and multiplicity”2. For instance, some would view witchcraft as a threat, that they would need to stone and burn to death those who were ‘suspected witches’, that it is necessary to consult ‘witchdoctors’ or religious spirit beings who have the ability to protect them from evil, that the power of God, prayers, fasting, and churches have ritual means to keep the witches away, and etc.5 These behaviors and beliefs draw an overall image of the congregant and the believer2, and a dual view to human personality, in which these beliefs enables people to express moral and social factors concerning the nature of human behaviors and personality3.
To conclude, it is undoubtedly that the beliefs and practices of witchcraft in the African societies or even other societies around the world have several common and similar ideas and differences. For instance, where the Europeans consider witchcraft as a work of magic to manipulate nature for one’s benefit, whereas the Africans consider witchcraft as an act of jealousy or envy, etc. The many similarities and differences in the beliefs and behaviors toward the practices of witchcraft also involve the ways of finding out the alleged witches, the punishments of the witches or accused individuals, and the beliefs of the power and ability that the witches presumably possess. Nevertheless, the history and origin of witchcraft and magic could be seen in different societies, and the power of witchcraft can undertake more than just evil and wrongdoings. As discussed above, the power of witchcraft could act as a force, bringing people of society together, allowing them to communicate the moral and social factors concerning human nature, such as human behaviors and personality, and could also act as a way to account for the causes of ‘strange’ events in which they cannot make sense of.
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