The Social Dynamics of Sorcery

“The difference between sacrificial and nonsacrificial violence is anything but exact; it is even arbitrary. At times the difference threatens to disappear entirely.” - René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 1972

Strategically deployed, the rumor represents one of the most powerful weapons that can be utilized in interpersonal conflict. The strength of an accusation lies primarily in the persuasiveness of the speaker, the repugnance of the charge attributed to the accused, and the willingness to believe on the part of the listeners. Malicious gossip is a cudgel wielded collectively, and in societies where sorcery beliefs are deeply ingrained, it can function as an instrument that stimulates communal punishment.  

Humans are rapacious creatures, and our demand for information is most satisfied by salaciousness and intrigue.

  Pirai, a  kanaimà’san , also known as a “dark shaman” or killer shaman. From  Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death  (2002) by Neil Whitehead.

Pirai, a kanaimà’san, also known as a “dark shaman” or killer shaman. From Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death (2002) by Neil Whitehead.

The sorcerer is a contradictory figure. He may be a dreaded and feared warrior, or a scapegoated loner, marginalized and despised. Among the Ilahita Arapesh horticulturalists of New Guinea, a man named Asao reveled in his status as a magician of great power. In the book The Cassowary’s Revenge (1997), anthropologist Donald Tuzin writes,

During my first fieldwork, Asao was the scariest man in the village – a sagguma, and proud of it. People would have openly despised him, only it was too dangerous to do so. It was safer to fear him, and that they certainly did…Sangguma [sorcerers] are said to acquire ghostly powers by mastering magical skills, submitting to harsh bodily disciplines, and drinking the fluids of a rotting corpse. Asao did not simply admit to all of this, he boasted of it. Animal familiars (mostly night birds) spied for him and brought him news of distant places. Asao claimed the ability to fly and to make himself invisible. With ostentatious glee, he told of participating in attacks (sangguma usually work in teams of two or three) on selected victims…Occasionally, he would be mysteriously absent for days or weeks at a time, presumably in retreat to purify his magical powers or on commission to stalk and attack someone in another, possibly distant, place (Tuzin, 57).

Tuzin adds that, “It was apparent that Asao liked being feared, liked being outrageous, liked being thought of as a scoundrel and a ghoul.” Sorcery for Asao was a practice he oriented his entire identity around, and it represented an integral part of the high degree of social status he received. Yet this public recognition came at a price;

Asao's baleful reputation carried social costs. With his three wives and two children, he lived in a bleak, unshaded camp thirty minutes' walk from the village...no community in the village would have him. Asao was a pariah. Even his own kinsmen did not like to have this golem around, living and lurking nearby...his complicity as a sorcerer was suspected in nearly every adult death… reviled and respected at the same time, Asao was viewed as a kind of public executioner (Tuzin, 58).

Anthropologist Adolphus Peter Elkin writes that across a number of Australian aboriginal societies, “to have a reputation for successful sorcery is to be a marked man. Such a man knows that sooner or later he will be designated the "murderer" of some person or other, and that either magical retaliation will be taken or else a revenge expedition will be sent to kill him.”

So, what is a sorcerer? A sorcerer is a – real or perceived – violator of norms of conduct. Such atypical behaviors often entail great risk. One who transgresses taboos that are not particularly esteemed, or that indicate one’s impressive abilities, can gain greater status and prestige, while those who infringe on regulations widely considered legitimate earn the enmity of kith and kin. This is the paradox at the heart of sorcery – the sorcerer seizes power or inadvertently orchestrates his own demise, on occasion performing each concurrently.

In Marcel Mauss’s work A General Theory of Magic (1902), he expands on the relationship between having high status and utilizing magic or sorcery, writing that,

Among the Australian Arunta, the chief of the local totemic group, its master of ceremonies, is at the same time a sorcerer. In New Guinea, most influential members of society are magicians; there are grounds for believing that throughout Melanesia, the chief – an individual who possess mana, that is, spiritual force – is endowed with magical as well as religious powers. It is no doubt for the same reasons that the mythical princes in the epic poetry of the Hindus and Celts were said to possess magical attributes (Mauss, 47).

In ‘The cultural evolution of shamanism’ (2017), anthropologist Manvir Singh notes how becoming a shaman can affect an individual’s social status, writing that, “Becoming a shaman provided a way for low-status individuals to attain prestige, such as in some hierarchical societies of the Pacific Northwest, while in other instances, shamans were regarded as attractive sexual partners.”

When it comes to distinguishing between practices that have been variously referred to as ‘sorcery’, ‘witchcraft’, ‘magic’, or ‘shamanism’, there is no widely agreed upon typology among anthropologists. In Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors and Gossip (2003), anthropologists Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern write that, “In principle…a distinction can be made between witchcraft as the expression of a malign power in a person’s body and sorcery as the use of a magical craft or knowledge to harm or benefit others. Especially, what is labeled witchcraft is often seen as a consuming force. The witch eats the life power of the victim.” Yet these differences are often not so clear. They add that, “in fact, people’s ways of putting ideas and practices together outrun any neat distinctions we may wish to make. Often what one writer translates as “sorcery” may look like “witchcraft” to another observer, depending on what features are emphasized.”

In the volume In Darkness and Sorcery: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia (2004), anthropologist Carlos Fausto notes that, “We know that one of the shaman’s functions is to favor hunting and warfare expeditions. We also know that shamans are held capable of magically killing their adversaries and that many Amazonian people do not clearly differentiate the shaman from the witch.” Singh adds that, in many societies, shaman represent a professional class that may be somewhat distinct from the more informal recognition of a witch or sorcerer. However, shaman tap into some of the same belief systems, and may fulfill similar social roles as that of the sorcerer. In this sense, all shaman may be said to practice sorcery, but not all sorcerers are professionals in the shamanic sense.

As each of these terms were originally developed in the early days of anthropology, and were largely subject to the vagaries of individual ethnographers, I consider them all together as related phenomena here, focusing on the facets they tend have in common in the relevant ethnographic material.

There are, however, differences between types of sorcery, across and within societies, that are worth addressing. For example, anthropologist Bruce Knauft writes that the Gebusi forager-horticulturalists of New Guinea distinguished between two types of sorcery: “Bogay constitutes what ethnographers call “parcel sorcery”—sickness sent by manipulating a parcel of the victim’s leavings. By contrast, ogowili qualifies as “assault sorcery,” a cannibal attack by magical warriors.” These sort of societal distinctions are not uncommon. Sorcery in warfare tends to be the undertaking of men, while the more subtle shades of magical torment can be deployed by either sex.

While sorcery can be wielded by persons of high status in some societies or circumstances, accusations of sorcery can also be used to impose punishments on marginalized individuals. Among the Mundurucu horticulturalists of the Amazon, anthropologists Yolanda and Robert F. Murphey write that, “For a person to shirk group work bespeaks of alienation from others, a dangerous pose in a society that identifies sorcerers by their estrangement from their fellowman – and kills them for the crime of witchcraft.” Knauft says that, “Gebusi sorcery is a form of scapegoating. The identity of sorcerers is “confirmed” by elaborate spirit inquests and divinations. Male spirit mediums play a key role in Gebusi sorcery accusations.”

Sorcery beliefs can exist as a key component of interpersonal or intergroup conflict. Of the Azande farmers of north central Africa, anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard notes that, “Death is due to witchcraft and must be avenged. All other practices connected with witchcraft are epitomized in the action of vengeance.” For the Yanomami forager-horticulturalists of the Amazon, Napoleon Chagnon says that, “New wars usually develop when charges of sorcery are leveled against the members of a different group.”

Accusations of sorcery can be both a cause of, and response to, conflict. Stewart and Strathern note that, in many cases, “While the witch or sorcerer is seen as the source of evil or wrong doing, it is the accusers who can be seen as playing the aggressive role.” They add that, “Rumor and gossip form the substratum from which accusations of sorcery or witchcraft may be made.” While the sorcerer is ostensibly a figure of great power, the accusation itself can contain far more hostile magic, as it may impel the group to engage in violent sanctioning of the putative magician. In The Scapegoat (1986), anthropologist René Girard writes that, “Magical thought seeks “a significant cause on the level of social relations,” in other words a human being, a victim, a scapegoat.” Girard adds that, “Those who are suffering are not interested in natural causes. Only magic makes “corrective intervention" possible, and everyone eagerly seeks a magician who can put things right.”

Accusations of improper sorcery can be used tactically by individuals to punish those they’re in conflict with, or to benefit themselves. Knauft notes that, “The opinion of spirits during all-night séances has been especially influential for finding and interpreting “evidence” of sorcery. Though spirit mediums should be neutral parties, the outcome of the sorcery inquest may benefit the spirit medium who conducts them.” Knauft tells the story of a spirit medium named Swamin, who redirected sorcery suspicions away from an accused woman named Sialim, and months later took her as his wife. Swamin had previously identified Sialim’s own mother, Mokoyl, as the alleged sorcerer responsible for killing his first wife, and he executed Mokoyl himself.

Among the Gebusi, individuals from families who fail to follow socially prescribed marriage exchanges were often accused of sorcery. Knauft writes that, “In this sense sorcery homicide is ultimately about male control of marriageable women. However, these statistically significant factors are neither publicly nor privately recognized by Gebusi as a cause of homicide against sorcery suspects, even by the closest kin of those killed.” Anthropologists Neil Whitehead and Robin Wright also note the strategic element of sorcery allegations in the Amazon, writing that, “sorcery accusations may represent forms of discourse about tensions in intervillage and interethnic relations, and may be structured by the idiom of kinship (consanguinity and affinity) and village hierarchy.”

In their study of 800 households in rural southwestern China, anthropologist Ruth Mace and her colleagues found that households accused of practicing witchcraft were often excluded from mainstream social networks, and instead preferentially associated amongst themselves. Mace and her colleagues argue that this “stigmatization originally arose as a mechanism to harm female competitors.” Stewart and Strathern sum up many of the patterns identified here, writing that,

Claims and counterclaims about the activities of witches and sorcerers tend to exist in the background of community affairs in the societies where such ideas are held. They flourish in the shadows, fed by gossip and rumor, and emerge into public debate or accusations only in times of specific tension, most often following the actual sickness or death of someone in a prominent family. Notably, rumors follow the patterns of imputed jealousies, hostilities, and resentments that also keep mostly to the shadows or lurk in the background of social life, ready to reveal themselves in times of crisis. Or they swing into play at times of unusual or epidemic deaths that themselves cause panic and fear (Stewart & Strathern, 7).

Beyond self-interested social conflict, or misattributed suspicions against marginal figures, sorcery accusations can function as a component of a legal system used to punish criminals and known killers. In his work on Ifugao law, anthropologist Roy Franklin Barton describes one such case;

Atiwan of Longa acquired a reputation as a sorcerer. He killed several of his kinsmen in Baay. Even his relatives in Longa admitted that he was a sorcerer, and said that he ought to be killed. Ginnid of Baay and several companions went to Longa one night, and called to Atiwan that they had come to see him. He opened the house and put down the ladder. The party ascended, and set upon Atiwan with their war knives and killed him. In trying to protect him, his wife, Dinaon, was wounded. The killing was universally approved.

The concept of sorcery hits at core notions of power and punishment, community and ostracism, causation and chance; it offers a framework both for understanding the world and mediating social relationships. In his book on The Australian Aborigines (1964), Elkin writes that sorcery across Australian societies “arises from a belief that illness and death and even accidents are caused by magical or animistic actions.” Across the world, in South America, anthropologist Esther Jean Langdon concurs in the volume In Darkness and Sorcery: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia (2004), writing that,

one is struck by the shared images throughout these ethnographies associated with death and illness. Both are generally caused by aggressive activities and forces in the occult side of reality, whether they be instigated by humans or not. “Being eaten from the inside” is an extremely widespread image of illnesses that are attributed to invisible attacks. Putrid smells and other rotten qualities, particularly the stench of tobacco and blood, represent the decay of death as well as secret uncontrolled aggression (Whitehead, 308).

Fausto argues that Amazon shamanism is best understood as “predatory animism: subjectivity is attributed to human and nonhuman entities, with whom some people are capable of interacting verbally and establishing relationships of adoption or alliance, which permit them to act upon the world in order to cure, to fertilize, and to kill.”

  “When outcomes of uncertainty are controlled by invisible forces, cultural selection will favor individuals who claim special abilities of interacting with those forces.” Figure from ‘The cultural evolution of shamanism’ (2017) by Manvir Singh, published in  Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

“When outcomes of uncertainty are controlled by invisible forces, cultural selection will favor individuals who claim special abilities of interacting with those forces.” Figure from ‘The cultural evolution of shamanism’ (2017) by Manvir Singh, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

The sorcerer is a paradox. At times both respected for their talent, and despised for their impropriety, they may be elevated by the community or punished and killed. Sorcery beliefs can be used to understand the world, seeking out causes of uncertain events, and may be embraced by self-interested parties to scapegoat enemies and promote collective violence. Functioning as a legal system, a practical tool of manipulation and control, a social philosophy, and a conceptual framework for understanding the world, sorcery beliefs have been a fundamental component of human societies the world over.

Sorcerers and their accusers are still among us, yet rather than fetishes and incantations, their weapons are often social networks and mass media. Take a recent case from the New York Times: An ornithologist collects a “ghost” bird seeking to learn its secrets, is accused of murdering a totemic animal, and is hit with counter-witchcraft advocating his elimination from society. In the aftermath, his fellow ornithologists vow to continue their activities with greater secrecy. This is modern sorcery, framed in terms more ostensibly moral than magical, but containing many of the elements of traditional sorcery—scapegoating, gossip, fear-mongering, rumors, ostracism, manipulation of information, reputational management, collective punishment. As Stewart and Strathern write, “even when particular notions of witchcraft or sorcery are not involved, rumor and gossip themselves may act as a kind of witchcraft, projecting guilt on others in ways that may cause them harm: for example, to lose their jobs, to be physically attacked, or to be socially shamed.”