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Literary coffee klatch: witchcraft, demons, and war

4 August 2017

Yesterday we gathered at Cafe 41 in Arcadia for our monthly literary coffee klatsch. Tony McGregor had a book, The mystery of the solar wind, by Lyz Russo, which is currently free on Smashwords. Tony said it was about pirates in the 22nd century, which reminded me that I had just finished re-reading Swallows and Amazons, which is about children camped on an island in a lake playing at pirates.

In my review of Swallows and Amazons I noted that as a child I preferred books about children being captured by real pirates, rather than playing at being pirates, and compared their island camp with that in Lord of the Flies, though that was really written for adults. But I had also been reminded of another book about children and pirates, which I had also read 50 years ago, A high wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. That book had helped me come to terms with the culture shock I experienced on first going to England.

David Levey then joined us, and we continued the discussion on witchcraft in literature and life from the previous meeting.

David was asking about the difference between witches and wizards, and other terms for similar phenomena. Books like the Harry Potter books and others in the genre have helped to reinforce the impression that wizards are male and witches are female, which can be misleading. I don’t really have much to add to what I wrote here 20 years ago Christian Responses to Witchcraft and Sorcery:

But what are witchcraft and sorcery? Anthropologists like to distinguish between them, and use them as technical terms. They regard “witchcraft” as the supposed power of a person to harm others by occult or supernatural means, without necessarily being aware of it. The witch does not choose to be a witch, and the supposed harm does not necessarily arise from malice or intent. Sorcery may be learned, whereas witchcraft is intrinsic. A sorcerer may use incantations, ritual, and various substances in order to do harm, while a witch does not (Hunter & Whitten 1976:405-406; Kiernan 1987:8). While this is a convenient and useful distinction for anthropologists to make, normal English usage is not as clear-cut, and the terms have often been used interchangeably (Parrinder 1958:18). In newspaper reports of recent witch hunts in South Africa, for example, the terms “witch”, “sorcerer” and “wizard” are often used to translate the Zulu umthakathi or the Sotho moloi. And English speaks of “witch hunts”, rather than of “sorcerer hunts”, though very often those who are hunted would be technically described by anthropologists as sorcerers rather than witches.

If one makes the anthropologists’ distinction, then witchcraft is similar to belief in the evil eye, which is found in many countries around the world, and is common among people in the Balkans. Val recalled that when we visited Albania in 2000 there were lots of recently built houses still under construction, and as soon as they reached roof height teddy bears and other soft toys were nailed to them to ward off the evil eye. There were many different kinds, not only teddy bears, but Disney characters and and an occasional Pink Panther. To non-Albanians they seemed rather spooky and scary, and many visitors remarked on them. They were called dordolets. Greeks also believed that one should never say complimentary things about someone’s new baby, as that could put the evil eye on the child, and one would have to spit three times to ward it off if one inadvertently said something nice about the child.

In most traditional African cultures evil is attributed to human malice. Under the influence of Christianity the concept of an evil spiritual realm, of demons and the devil, has intruded. Witches may be male or female. The anthropologists’ distinction between witchcraft and sorcery is based on some African cultures that make such a distinction, but many others don’t.

This is illustrated by a discussion between a Christian missionary and an African diviner (Kirwen 1993:53):

The issue of the symbolization of evil as witch or devil divided us. For Riana, in a very real sense, everyone potentially is a witch. The witch is ‘you who are immoral’. This refined moral sensitivity of the Africans should be a revelation to Western theologians who have tended to see traditional religious morality as impersonal and taboo-oriented. The fact that the witch is potentially any person shows how African morality is grounded in relationship within the human community, and how it stresses, immeasurably, the moral responsibility of each and every individual. There is no ‘The devil made me do it’ excuse in the African world. The devil of the Christian religion is part and parcel of the two-world cosmic vision of Christianity. The devil functions as the evil link between the two worlds, reinforcing the belief that the ultimate solution to evil takes place outside this limited human existence.

There is often confusion among white people between a witch and a witchdoctor. The witchdoctor is not the same thing as a witch, but rather someone who specialises in detecting and curing the problems caused by witchcraft. The Zulu isangoma is a diviner, or soothsayer, a diagnostician. One who specialises in smelling out witches is an isanuku. Of course it is possible for a sangoma to “go over to the dark side”, as it were, just as a security guard can be in cahoots with burglars.

David also asked about the concept of the “good witch”, but I believe that arises from confusion with a herbalist. The Zulu word for that is inyanga, which is someone who has a specialist knowledge of healing herbs, and also, of poisons. So the inyanga too can “go over to the dark side”. The inyanga is a pharmacist, and in Galatians 5:20, among the sins listed is witchcraft, a translation of the Greek pharmakeia.

The English word wizard is of quite different derivation, and essentially means a wise person. David commented that in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings there were both good and evil wizards — good ones like Gandalf and evil ones like Saruman. But in theological terms the “wizards” in Middle Earth were not humans, but Istari, who were angelic beings, though in the Quenya language “Istari” means wise ones. And in the Arthurian legends Merlin the wizard is of mysterious origin, not entirely human, and some say at least partly demonic.

We didn’t exhaust the point of the nature of wizards in literature, especially in pre-modern literature (ie not Harry Potter, Dell Comics, or The Wizard of Oz) but moved on to demons.

In the Christian worldview demons held much the same place as witches in traditional African worldviews. For me it called to mind the contrast between Christian experience in South Africa and England 50 years ago. When I went to England in 1966 to study theology the first essay I was asked to write was on “Jesus and the demons”. I read my essay to the principal of the college, and at the end of it he said “But you haven’t told me whether you think the demons exist”, and I thought that was as irrelevant as someone, having just been run over by a bus, debating whether the bus existed. Someone I discussed this with later, back in South Africa, said, “Yes, it doesn’t matter what the demons are. What matters is that Christ has the mastery of them. This is the brief version of that anecdote; if you’d like the details, see Of babies and bathwater: English theological and ecclesiastical reformers | Notes from underground.

A demon or daemon (δαίμων) in ancient Greece was a lesser deity, and in Christian usage the term came to be applied mainly to fallen angels. of whom the devil or satan was the chief. What they are and how they operate can be conceived in many different ways. In the New Testament some people were oppressed by demons, and quite a large part of our Lord Jesus Christ’s ministry was taken up with casting out the demons and setting people free from their influence (the topic of my essay, mentioned above).

But there are also corporate demons, demons of groups of people, and nations. In South Africa one could see racism and apartheid as demonic powers that oppressed people and needed to be driven out. Some have come up with the concept of egregores, a kind of spiritual power or group mind that arises from a group of people doing something together, so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Janneke Weidema said that Quaker meetings could be seen in this way. A group of people gather, and the gathering becomes more than the individual people who compose it.

I’ve also written more on the topic of egregores and angels here Of egregores and angels | Notes from underground and here Angels and demons and egregores (book review) | Khanya.

Janneke Weidema told us the story of the Flying Dutchman. There was a ship’s captain who wanted to sail on Good Friday, and when the mate remonstrated with him for that he tossed the mate overboard, and vowed to sail even if he had to sail forever, and he was indeed doomed to sail forever and never make port. The captain of the ship seemed to create his own demon that drove him to evil.

She also told us about the importance of St Martin in the Netherlands. St Martin is said to have given his cloak to a beggar, so Dutch children go around asking for gifts on his feast day. That reminded me of St Martin’s role as the patron saint of conscientious objectors, and Janneke promised to tell us more about Quakers as our next meeting.

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