A belief in witches appears throughout much of human history. Although some believe that stories of witches are no longer relevant today, recent cultural events – including a 2005 prayer that Sarah Palin be protected "from every form of witchcraft" in her bid to be Alaska governor – indicate that these powerful beliefs are still alive and well. Anthropology professor Alma Gottlieb talks about how anthropological studies of witchcraft are as relevant as ever. She was interviewed by News Bureau Life Sciences Editor Diana Yates.
Witchcraft is alive and well in contemporary culture, as evidenced by popular books and movies such as the Harry Potter series, The Blair Witch Project and The Craft. But these are forms of entertainment. Is witchcraft really taken seriously in the 21st century?
Because of the Harry Potter effect, many probably assume that witchcraft is a silly superstition or a childish fantasy. But even in the U.S. today there are people who call themselves practicing witches and they view themselves as practicing a serious religion. They view witchcraft in a positive light – unlike most other people who tend to view it in a negative light, either as something allied with evil or the devil in Christian theology, or with children.
How is witchcraft different from a general belief in the occult?
It's not. To me, witchcraft is a religion on the same footing as Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Animism, Jainism, Islam and any other religion that I haven't named but might. These are all beliefs in an unseen force, which by acknowledgment of most believers can't be proven by the methods of modern science. They all share a belief in something mystical.
What do you make of the recent YouTube video that shows a Kenyan pastor warding off witches while blessing Sarah Palin in her bid to be the governor of Alaska?
As an anthropologist, I don't have a problem with Sarah Palin hanging out with a witch-hunting minister from Kenya. She's entitled to her religious practices, as is anyone else. What I have a problem with is those Palin supporters who tolerate that and yet are intolerant of other religious traditions – say, Islam, or Hinduism, or even witch-hunting practiced by people not associated with Palin – which I see as hypocritical.
What insights can come from the anthropological study of witchcraft?
The easiest sort of "Anthro 101" answer is that we in America claim that our society was founded with the goal of promoting religious tolerance – although some historians would argue that that effort only applied to certain strands of Protestants and certainly not to Native Americans – but in any case, it's the national story that we tell ourselves. If we're going to take our national story seriously, then we have to study, and make an effort to understand, any religion as it's practiced in the world.
At a more specific level, witchcraft has been sidelined as a particular form of evil because of the place that it's occupied in Christian history in the last millennium at least. And if we take a more comparative, broader look at witchcraft and the way that witchcraft accusations have worked in other places, I think you can actually illuminate certain political processes that might be more invisible to us. When we study things from afar, suddenly everything nearby looks different.
For example, in West Africa, among the group I've done research with for a long time, the Beng people of Ivory Coast, the traditional position of king is occupied by someone who is a witch. The man isn't evil - far from it. Rather, he's supposed to use his mystical powers to protect the kingdom. People say that the Beng kingdom is constantly under attack by witches and in order to protect it, they need a head of state who is the most powerful witch of all to combat the powers of evil that are constantly menacing the kingdom. This is a very different view of morality than the Christian view. It folds a notion of evil into the situation of being human and it says we all have within ourselves these opposed impulses and the best we can do is fight the evil within us and harness that power. And it says that power by itself is morally neutral - it's what we do with power that makes it either good or evil. This is the sort of perspective that anthropology can supply to remind us that the bottom-line assumptions we make about things like power are just that - assumptions. They're not reality.
Why are we in the West still so obsessed with witches and witchcraft?
In America, witchcraft played a particular role with the Salem witch trials, which sidelined witchcraft as evil incarnate. Any time you're going to unequivocally stigmatize something as the embodiment of evil, there's always going to be a fascination for it. That's just part of the human condition. So the more we try to exorcise a ghost – literally or metaphorically – the more it's going to haunt us.