Bowen (Bohannan) and Davis’ notable works “Return to Laughter” and “The Serpent and the Rainbow” respectively, serves as reliable references mainly for the field of anthropology. In both books, the authors dealt with exploring the practice of witchcraft from separate parts of the world – Bowen’s semi-fictional novel covered Nigerian witchery, alongside personal-based experiences; while Davis’ was of entirely non-fiction, focusing on “the secret societies of Haitian voodoo, zombies, and magic”.
Witchcraft, by definition, is the alleged use of magic or supernatural powers. Throughout history, common people – often women and children – are accused and condemned for using spells, acquiring human body parts, and the like, with no concrete proof. With even the slightest suspicion, a person will immediately be disowned, otherwise executed, by their community, and even by their own family.
People regard it as evil – it’s a ‘condemning quality’ for their society. Oftentimes, witch accusations rise from (simple) social tensions or unexplained misfortunes. Though witch trials and executions have already been illegalized in the contemporary world, Wiccan activities continue to be greatly frowned upon – one cannot simply eliminate it off certain cultures; in a way, it’s already embedded in their system.
This is as evident in Bowen’s “Return to Laughter”, a detailed account of her experience living with a Nigerian primitive bush tribe – it revealed how she struggled to learn and understand local culture and beliefs, whilst handling the conflicts it caused with her own; how she made it through being ostracized by the locals because of being involved with a supposed witch; and how her decision changed the course of her study greatly.
She wasn’t only there, she was out there – she witnessed firsthand society’s conviction over such practice and realized how much of a big deal it was in their area. As for Davis’ case, his study highlighted especially on the Haitian process of zombification – the psychiatric condition in which the victims believe that their awareness is retained in a bottle or jar while their bodies are enslaved by the bokor, the voodoo sorcerer who summoned them.
This was seen as a form of witchcraft despite the obvious physiological causes (though there are still some specifics left unclear). The bokor in Haitian Vodou, an indigenous religion, refers to a sorcerer or a houngan (priests) for hire, said to be able to practice both good and dark magic, though some sources plainly refer to them as the evil opposites of houngan. Due to these claims, they, too, are outlawed by their community.
In studying social relationships in their corresponding communities, both authors’ used witchcraft as their basis perhaps because of the fact that witchery is (nearly) the center of the communities’ belief systems; they might’ve tried to understand the nature of that particular society through how they react towards the people they’ve categorized as witches. They try to see how society accepts those ‘in’ or how those ‘out’ are reprimanded – alleged witches being of the ‘out’ crowd.
Despite both areas’ same claims of involvement in the practice of witchcraft, there are still differences to be noted. For one, there’s no concrete proof for the existence of witches or their said ‘witchcraft’ – the locals’ only bases are another’s unusual habits and such; then, they also say that witches can perform ‘magic’ even without solid provisions – they can cause misfortune to befall upon their enemy without physically doing anything; and they can cause famine, rain, landslides, etc.
whenever. Besides these, they also say that power of witchcraft can be passed on to whomever. For the bokor, on the other hand, their black magic is almost limited to the creation of zombies and ‘ousngans’, talismans that house spirits; and their rank isn’t simply passed on to anyone but only to those believed to posses great power at birth. The said creation of zombies is actually plausible: Haitian zombies aren’t literal dead-people-come-to-life.
In fact, they’ve never been dead in the first place – they’ve been drugged, putting them in a state of deep coma thus, giving the impression of being ‘dead’; later, they’re induced with an indefinite set of chemicals and awakened in a state of emotional and mental detachment – now giving the impression of being ‘reanimated’. So unlike witches, the bokor’s existence can actually be detected. Furthermore, witches are common people while the bokor are highly ranked in their society.
Still, there are specific similarities apparent too: both witch and bokor deal with spirits and magic and are said to be able to perform both good and evil magic; also, they perform sacred rituals and carry talismans and so on. “Religious” wouldn’t exactly be the term I would use to describe how I see the Nigerian and Haitian belief system based on the gathered information above; I wouldn’t say that it’s all “superstitious” either but I’d rather go with this point.
From where I stand, these people see witchery as a product of the devil, which I believe, still counts in religious beliefs; however, their way of finding fault in a person is but irrational, it’s already of the ‘superstitious’ kind – the peculiar habits or the unusual appearance of a person doesn’t make a person any less human!
Besides, the witch and bokor are conflicted between good and evil, and their purpose in the great cosmos isn’t clear too; therefore, their divine involvement is, overall, uncertain – and that’s going against the definition of ‘religious’. Witchcraft, magic, zombies, talismans…these terms are already passe and ridiculed in the 21st century setting but they continue to survive amongst today’s trends. Not to mention that they still maintain a long line of followers.
Nonetheless, in spite of its relative share of adverse effects today, it is still living proof of our ancestors’ exertions in reaching the extent of their imagination to satisfy their curiosity – and that’s certainly something! Bibliography Agar, M. (1996). The Professional Stranger: An Informal Introduction to Ethnography. New York: Academic Press. Bowen, E. S. (1964). Return to Laughter: an Anthropological Novel . New York: Anchor Books. Craven, W. (Director). (1988). The Serpent and the Rainbow [Motion Picture].