Theories of Witchcraft in Practice: F.G. Bailey’s ‘The Witch-Hunt’

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3




1. ‘Magic’, ‘Sorcery’, and ‘Witchcraft’: Definitions and Concepts
1.1 ‘Magic’
1.2 ‘Sorcery’ and ‘Witchcraft’

2. Historical Overview of Theories on Magic, Sorcery and Witchcraft

3. Theories in Practice: F.G. Bailey’s “The Witch-Hunt”
3.1 The Setting
3.2 The Witch-Hunt: the Events
3.3 The Witch-Hunt: Interpretations




To most people growing up in a Western cultural setting, magic, sorcery and witchcraft hold a certain fascination. There always seems to be something mysterious, extraordinary, even risky to the named issues, probably because we just don’t face them in everyday life. Anthropology shares this fascination for the following reasons: “cross-cultural prevalence, frequent cultural prominence, paradoxical attributes, no doubt the attraction of the exotic, and the potential for testing theories about belief and social action” (Levine 1982: 259). In this paper, I will focus mainly on the subject of witchcraft without disregarding important links to magic and sorcery. Central questions are: What is witchcraft? Under what circumstances does witchcraft appear? Why do people accuse others of it or confess to witchcraft themselves? How does witchcraft relate to the social structure, economics, politics and personal affairs of the members of a so- ciety? There have been different answers to those questions since the first papers on magic, sorcery, and witchcraft have been written in the late 19th and early 20th century. In chapter 2, I will therefore present a historical overview of the most important approaches in general which are also especially important for this study. Theories by Frazer, Tylor, Malinowski, Evans- Pritchard and Douglas will be sketched out. Beforehand I will try to discern the concepts of magic, witchcraft and sorcery in chapter 1 and name their most important aspects. This differ- entiation is important to do, since the meanings of the named terms have changed over the decades and there is still a bit of disaccord or confusion in the use and understanding of them today. In chapter 3, I will give a résumé of the monography The Witch-Hunt; or: a Triumph of Morality by F.G. Bailey which is based on his fieldwork in an Indian village in 1953. He uses several anthropological approaches to explain and interpret the exceptional events that have taken place, drawing on functional, structural and psychological theories. Also in chapter 3, I will point out how Bailey provides empiric examples for theories stated by great anthropolo- gists over the decades. Lastly, I will draw a conclusion and try to answer the questions I posed above.

1. ‘Magic’, ‘Sorcery’, and ‘Witchcraft’: Definitions and Concepts

By using any of the following terms, we always have to keep in mind that we came to know them and use them in a cultural-specific way. Each and every one of us has different connota- tions and interpretations of them. We can be sure that what we mean when we say ‘magical’ or ‘witch’ is different to the meaning that the perceiving person ascribes to it, since we are all influenced not only by our culture but also by our personal experience. Surely, to be able to work in the field of anthropology one has to use certain terms to be able to communicate. ‘General’ definitions of magic, sorcery and witchcraft are therefore helpful to use, though there has been the suggestions to delete them altogether and instead to only use indigenous words. In my opinion, people would translate those indigenous words anyway for themselves, at least unconsciously. Therefore, I suggest sticking to the Western terms in a practical way by keeping in mind that they are not free of connotations.

1.1 ‘Magic’

In everyday speech, the terms ‘magic’ and ‘magical’ are used loosely and cannot be under- stood or interpreted in a single way. They generally refer to supernatural power or to anything mysterious. In anthropology, “magic involves the human effort to manipulate the forces of nature directly, by the symbolic projection of power, involving the learned use of objects, words, and/or thoughts” (Stevens 1996: 1225).This definition is based on the assumption that everything that happens is somehow interconnected. All connections together form something like a natural order. Magical powers influence the connections with ‘good’ or ‘bad’ forces (Stevens 1996a: 724) and therefore change the natural order in a certain way. To put it sim- pler, magic describes supernatural actions that have a specific aim: hurting, punishing, but also protecting somebody, acquiring love, success or money, to name just a few examples.

Throughout the history of anthropology, the relation of magic with science has been of great importance, because “science is a way of knowing, as are the principles of magic. (…) [Magic] addresses human questions that science cannot answer; it will accommodate, but will not be replaced by, science” (ibid.: 726, amendment by C.D.). The way of knowing things and central human questions answered in different ways will always be in the focus of anthropol- ogy. I will take up again the discussion about science and magic in the following chapters.

Another important and long-lasting discussion is the one about rationality and irrationality, as “[magic] seems to rely on causal connections that a rational observer would describe as irra- tional; that is, it asserts causal connections that have no demonstrable existence in the natural world” (Luhrmann 1997: 298, amendment by C.D.). It is very important to keep in mind that what is seen as rational or irrational always depends on the socio-cultural context. There are just as many ways of constructing what is rational and what is not than there are people living on this planet, or, to sum it up a little, there are just as many ‘rationalities’ as different cul- tures. Magic of any kind is always embedded in particular conceptions and has as many points of reference as people being involved in it.

1.2 ‘Sorcery’ and ‘Witchcraft’

Just like ‘magic’, the terms ‘sorcery’ and ‘witchcraft’ are applied cross-culturally. Therefore, there is no consent on their use either. Sometimes they are used synonymously, but most an- thropologists “agree on the distinction that sorcery as magic is an actual practice, which theo retically can be learned by anyone, whereas witchcraft is a belief and not actually demonstrable” (Stevens 1996b: 1225). Sorcery is hence often practiced by specialists, whereas witchcraft could, generally speaking, be embodied in anybody.

Both sorcery and witchcraft are rather associated with malevolent powers (ibid.):

“‘Sorcery’ (…) means magic with evil or harmful intent or that seeks to benefit the practitioner or his client in a way that deprives others. (…) By ‘witchcraft’, most anthropologists mean a belief in a mystical power that develops in some people and enables them to work evil directly, without magic or spiritual assistance.”

Most of the times, witchcraft is associated with women and sorcery with men, but there are examples that proof the opposite, as I will show later on. Other traits of distinctions are the use of symbols, either expressed by words or with the hands (ibid.: 1227). These traits are usually not to be found in witchcraft as this is more a system of belief in supernatural or mystical power than actual practice, as already noted above.

Both ‘sorcery’ and ‘witchcraft’ imply social actions and conceptions, a view which is shared by contemporary anthropologist Bruce Kapferer by declaring that sorcery helps to create the political and economical realities people live in (Kapferer 1997: 1 ff.). Kapferer stresses the importance of observing sorcery and witchcraft as something used by individuals who are always part of a network of relations(ibid.: 1). The individual manner of acting and thinking thus always affects other people and their life situations (ibid.), a fact that will become clear in the ethnographical examples I will provide in chapter 3. Nevertheless, according to Kapferer, one shouldn’t shroud the cosmology of a social group by focusing too much on the sociological approach to magical practices and beliefs (ibid.: 18):

“With reference to British social anthropologists, the “oversociologization” of the ethnography of sorcery obscures key distinctions between societies. For example, it masks very different constructions of the person.”

To sum it up, it is important to see the aspect of changing or reinforcing social patterns, for example question of status, but one should also keep an eye on other important aspects that sorcery and witchcraft show us: history, person, ontology and cosmology. This becomes clear when dealing with supernatural practices and beliefs not as a self-contained category, but with a holistic method that considers correlations with a variety of fields of everyday human practice. As important as I see this approach today, it hasn’t always been applied, especially not in the beginnings of the anthropology of magic.

2. Historical Overview of Theories on Magic, Sorcery and Witchcraft

Magic, witchcraft and sorcery can be found worldwide in uncountable variations. The first anthropologists though to study magical practices and beliefs of foreign social groups (mostly in Africa and Asia) drew heavily on historical conclusions of the European witch craze be tween the 15th and 18th century. Further, those early social anthropologists classified the cus- toms and rituals they had heard about from colonialists or missioners in an evolutionistic manner. This manner fitted the circumstances of the Western takeover of ‘savage’ peoples’ countries during the colonialist times at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th cen- tury. Sorcery and witchcraft were seen as a very different belief system, different from the Western one and located on a lower level of evolution. Kapferer (1997: 15 ff., amendment by C.D.) describes the works of Edward B. Tylor, James G. Frazer and other intellectualists of that time like this:

“[Their] study was integral to the more general knowledge in the legitimation of the imperial domination of the West (the site of reason) over the subordinated rest (the site of unreason). (…) [S]orcery demonstrated a fundamental anxiety and fear in human existence of the kind that gave rise to and was overcome by religion.[They have seen] sorcery as a manifestation of the primitive awe of human beings before the magnitude of the universe and as evidence of a terror of the unknown. This was the ground for the emergence of religion and for the final authority of rational science that eliminated such fear through the amassing of objective knowledge.”

The latter assumption of a three-stage development from magic to religion and finally to sci- ence was postulated by Frazer in 1911 in the third edition of The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Magic, he argued, was a wrong association of ideas (Seymour-Smith 1986: 175). A generation before, Tylor, the author of Primitive Culture (1871), described magic as a “pseudo-science” that was used by ‘primitive’ people to explain the nature and cause of phenomena they observed and experienced (Seymour-Smith 1986: 175). In the be- ginning of research, magic, sorcery and witchcraft were thus seen as an ‘exotic’ way of being superstitious, a superstition which had to be overcome to rise from a ‘primitive’ to a ‘high’ cultural level.

This changed with Bronislaw Malinowski in the early 20th century. He introduced the ethno- graphic method, thus being able to study magic as applied by the people in practice and thereby stressing the historical and cultural context of the researched topic. In his work on the Trobrianders of the Western Pacific (published in 1922), Malinowski identified sorcery as a “pragmatic practice, a logic means for overcoming the uncertainties of human life” (Nabokov 2000: 147). In contrary to the Intellectualists, functionalist Malinowski thus described sorcery and other magical practices as something rational that had to be explored in the field and therefore under the local circumstances. Sorcery or magic -just like science− was seen by him as a practical addition that comes to aid when events can’t be explained with logic thinking (Kapferer 1997: 12) or whenever craftsmanship was assumed not to be enough to cope with a difficult situation (Wax 1963: 498).

Malinowski’s student, E.E. Evans-Pritchard was not only the first to distinguish between ‘witchcraft’ and ‘sorcery’, but he -just like Malinowski− shared the notion of seeing them as social practice which needs to be examined in its socio-cultural context (Evans-Pritchard 1976: 63). This becomes clear in his groundbreaking book Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, published in 1937. Disagreeing with earlier anthropologists, the concept of witchcraft here is furthermore compatible with logic thinking, rationality or cause and effect (ibid.: 67):

“In speaking to Azande about witchcraft and in observing their reactions to situations of misfortune it was obvious that they did not attempt to account for the existence of phe- nomena, or even the action of phenomena, by mystical causation alone. What they ex- plained by witchcraft were the particular conditions in a chain of causation which re- lated an individual to natural happenings in such a way that he sustained injury.”

Witchcraft therefore is only part of a causal chain and only one possibility to explain misfor- tune. Which of the possible causes counts depends on the social situation, as witchcraft beliefs are also seen by him as “[embracing] a system of values which regulate human conduct” (ibid.: 63, amendment by C.D.). For example, he writes about the belief of witchcraft being hereditary, but only in the lower classes, meaning only these people could be accused of hav- ing used witchcraft. Upper class people couldn’t ‘have’ it and hence couldn’t be accused by a person of a lower status. By appliance of this belief, the social structure was kept up (Douglas 1970: xvi): “Where roles were buffered by unequal power, wealth, or other forms of social distance, witchcraft accusations were not made; [instead,] they appeared where tensions be- tween neighbouring rivals could not otherwise be resolved” (ibid.: xvii, amendment by C.D.). Another aspect of seeing witchcraft as a social control system is that amongst the Azande, witchcraft didn’t count as an excuse for misfortunate events once it was clear that someone had broken a taboo, didn’t stick to the moral rules or simply his skills weren’t good enough (Evans-Pritchard 1976: 63). Only if all rules were followed and all technical failures could be barred, calamity was assigned to witchcraft. Evans-Pritchard gives examples of those particu- lar situations, where witchcraft was selected as the cause of misfortune (ibid.: 73, amendment by C.D.):

“If a man is killed by a spear in war, or by a wild beast in hunting, or by the bite of a snake, or from sickness, the reaction is the same and it is not directed in different modes of expression by the different modes of death. In every case witchcraft is the socially re- levant cause, since it is the only one which allows intervention and determines social behaviour.


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Theories of Witchcraft in Practice: F.G. Bailey’s ‘The Witch-Hunt’
University of Heidelberg  (Institut für Ethnologie)
Sorcery and Witchcraft in South Asia: Theories and Practices of the Occult
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witchcraft, magic, witch-hunt, sorcery, Frazer, Malinowksi, Evans-Pritchard, Tylor, Douglas
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Carolin Duss (Author), 2007, Theories of Witchcraft in Practice: F.G. Bailey’s ‘The Witch-Hunt’, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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