Something Wicked this Way Comes


I thought I would write up a few notes on the discussion of End of the Wicked last night. I was struck by the difference within the film between what I understand about traditional West African witch beliefs (admittedly very little) and the narrative of the film, which seem to be entirely within the Christian narrative of anti-witch demagoguery. (I am aware that I am no expert on either, and that there were a whole load of specific cultural symbols that I could well have missed out on, for example I would like to understand the symbolism of the witches’ names, which was puzzling and amusing to a European audience).

First of all the difference between witchcraft and sorcery – in the majority of contexts a differentiation is made between the witch (wise-woman, wizard) and the sorcerer. Witchcraft generally refers to the acts of someone with innate magical ability, and can be either beneficial or malefic depending upon the individual. Sorcery is the conjuring of spirits by material/intellectual ritual means, it an be engaged in by anyone and is almost always viewed as evil. The idea of the witch being a servant of the devil was a continental European idea that was put forward by late medieval theologians. It allowed the church to put promote the idea that anyone who practised ‘spiritual activity’ outside of its aegis was a servant of the devil and it is this conflation that is practised by the evangelical churches in Nigeria and elsewhere (e.g. here or here).

Prior to this white witchcraft (divining for lost objects, charms for protection in childbirth) was, while been frowned upon by theologians, not incompatible with being a good Christian and was to a certain extent employed by the pre-reformation church. ‘The difference between churchmen and magicians lay less in the effects they claimed to achieve than in their social position, and in the authority on which their claims rested.’ (Keith Thomas, 1971)

Witchcraft or applied folk magic exists everywhere especially, but not exclusively, amongst the powerless who do not have equal access to official religion ‘[the Church] canonizeth the rich for saints and banneth the poor for witches’ (Reginald Scot, 1585) but hysterical reactions to it are generally tied to periods of socio-economic flux. The witchcraft accusation is an excuse to break previously existing social bonds, society is no longer obliged to support the witch so can cast them out or kill them without guilt. In fact it becomes a moral duty, and a socially cohesive one as the previously fractured group can reunite in the destruction of the malefic element (cf. Rene Girard on the Scapegoat and Agamben on Homo Sacer).

The accusation of witchcraft and the fact of witchcraft go hand in hand; the householder feels guilt about their neglect of the poor old woman who comes to their door, suffers a slight set back and links this bad luck with their failure to behave as they should according to tradition, in an environment where magical thinking is prevalent it becomes easier to pass the blame onto the old woman as a witch, especially if she went away muttering (cursing!) under her breath. In the same way the old woman may think herself a witch out of despair of bettering her condition:

Witchcraft was thus generally believed to be a method of bettering one’s condition when all else had failed. Like most forms of magic it was a substitute for impotence, a remedy for anxiety and despair. But it differed from the other in that it usually involved acts of malice towards other people. Although the witch might expect to gain some material benefits from her diabolical compact, these were subordinate to her main desire, to avenge herself on her neighbours. Such a desire was to be found at all levels in society, but it was usually only the poor and helpless who hoped to attain them by witchcraft, because for them the normal channels of legal action or physical force were not available.  (Keith Thomas, 1971)

If we were to strip End of the Wicked of its spiritual elements we would therefore have a rather different ethical tale: Chris, being a self made man, has no respect for tradition and bullies his family. His mother being frightened of him and jealous of the sexuality her children enjoy, and that she no longer has access to because of her age and widowhood, enlists the help of his children to bring him down. It is in this sense an intergeneration conflict brought about by the hostility and ambivalence that goes with the generational shift of social and economic control.  However her desire for revenge becomes so all consuming that in the end it drives her insane as she, Lady Macbeth like, continues to strike out at all those around her, until finally she is destroyed.

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2 responses to “Something Wicked this Way Comes

  1. More on the social function of witchcraft, in this case in Africa:

    For though a man gains prestige by his productive capacities, if he outdoes his fellows too much they will suspect him of witchcraft. Richards reports of the Bemba, that to find one beehive with honey in the woods is is luck, to find two is very good luck, to find three is witchcraft. Generally, she concludes, for a man ‘to do much better than his fellows is dangerous. A man who is full when others are hungry is hardly considered to have achieved the good fortune by natural means. An occasional stroke of good luck is not resented, but to be permanently more prosperous than the rest of the village would almost certainly lead to accusations of sorcery.’ And a man whose food last throughout the hungry months may be suspected of stealing by sorcery the good out of the crops in his neighbours’ granaries. Here accusations of witchcraft and sorcery maintain the egalitarian basis of the society in two ways: not only is the prosperous man in danger of accusation, but he also fears the malice of witches and sorcerers among his envious fellows. Max Gluckman, 1971

    It is interesting to note that these accusations are not necessarily final, later in the book Gluckman talks about a Ndembu village headman who was accused of witchcraft (owing to a political power struggle). There was a trial, he was found guilty and expelled from the village. Owing to his no longer being a political threat he was after a decent period of time allowed to appeal and reconciled to the village.

  2. A few references from the talk on 1st March on this subject are: The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa by Peter Geschiere (1995), Ritual killing, 419, and fast wealth: inequality and the popular imagination in southeastern Nigeria by Daniel Jordon Smith in American Ethnologist (2001) . Also this article is extremely thorough and gives a good overview of a contemporary belief in child witches in sub-Saharan Africa: Children Accused of Witchcraft An anthropological study of contemporary practices in Africa (April 2010 Aleksandra Cimpric UNICEF WCARO, Dakar) link http://www.unicef.org/wcaro/wcaro_children-accused-of-witchcraft-in-Africa.pdf

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