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There is a pataki, which is a story of Orisha, about words, slander and stewardship. Obatalá is the king of the Orisha under Heaven. He is the wise Sky Father who designed and created the human body. The Orisha respect him as judge and counsel, because he rules with wisdom and not with power. Obatalá teaches patience and listening.
Changó, on the other hand, is the Orisha of leadership, but he is impatient, splenetic and impetuous. He is also the son of Obatalá, who saw Changó clearly for his limitations, but also recognized his intelligence, industry and commitment to helping others. It was for that reason that when Changó was very young, Obatalá put him in charge of governing people.
Many were concerned about this decision, but no one dared question Obatalá to his face. Instead, they just complained to him about Changó. The stories told ranged from silly to serious. And Changó would hear them whispered. The rumors swirled constantly until Changó confronted Obatalá asking, “Father why did you put me in charge? Everyone tells terrible stories about me and none of them are true! Why do they do this?”Obatalá responded by asking Changó to prepare a dinner for him and all his children. He wanted to be served the most enchanting and delicious food that Changó could think of. When the evening came for the meal, Changó presented his father with a stewed beef tongue saying, “It is delicious and magical, full of aché!” Everyone enjoyed the dinner.
A few months passed and Obatalá requested another meal from his son. This time, he asked Changó, “Present me with the most dangerous of meals – the worst food you can bring!” Changó entered and presented him again with beef tongue. Obatalá was impressed and asked why. Changó responded, “A good tongue will save a village and bad tongue will destroy it.” Obatalá was pleased and said “This is why you lead. You now understand the power of your voice and your words for ill and blessing. And you have learned to rise above slander while speaking words of greatness. Worry only when they stop talking about you.”
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This past week, I was truly struck by a story that came out of Northern Nigeria that resonated with the above pataki. A 65-year old Muslim woman in Sokoto State was allegedly tried and publicly flogged with twelve strokes administered by palace guards in the royal courtyard of the area’s traditional leader. The woman’s trial and punishment were reportedly the consequence of a dispute with her daughter-in-law, who alleged that her husband was mistreating her and that he was aided by her mother-in-law’s witchcraft. Subsequent media reports note that residents of the community have requested gubernatorial intervention because, as they claim, this is not the first accusation of witchcraft and that such accusations are on the rise.
To put the story in context, it was shocking not only in terms of what happened, but also in the location of the atrocity. Witchcraft persecution is not uncommon in the Christian south of Nigeria. But for this event to have occurred in the Muslim north represents a departure from the location and group most likely to engage in witch hunts. It is a change that portends more could be on the way.
A belief in the evils of witchcraft is in fact indigenous, but this manner of remedy is not. The African Traditional Religions of Nigeria that were brought to the West, like Ocha and Ifá, approach the issue as an aspect of negative energy. Priests identify the spiritual problem and then properly work with Orisha, and their own aché to restore balance in the afflicted person. The current witch hunt and elimination of witches is chiefly the culmination of colonization and the importation of Scottish and American Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries into the local community. It has produced a truly noxious cultural brew that imperils lives. And now that Northern Nigeria is reporting the identification and hunting of witches suggests a sinister contagion into regions that have traditionally been disinterested in locating and punishing them.
These witch hunts have taken the most disturbing of turns in the south and east of Nigeria through the work of the Pentecostal community and their evangelical “prophets.” Children as young as 24 months of age are branded as witches and then tortured, abandoned and even killed by their parents in order to secure either their own safety or the salvation of the child. Preachers of such communities have even turned to the instruments of the Spanish Inquisition, using anything from whips to boiling water to even lye against toddlers and teens, to ensure their flock is free from “Satanic influence.”
The only instrument, many believe, to remedy such evil is to turn to the power self-proclaimed priests and prophets who purvey both salvation and antidotes. One such prophet is Helen Ukpabio self-declared as The Lady Apostle and founder of Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries in Calabar. Ms. Ukpabio produced and starred in a film called The End of the Wicked. While available on YouTube, I strongly recommend you watch it with caution if you intend to work your way through it. The Wild Hunt has previously reported on her activities.
Her proclamations are inconsistent with reason. But the real revulsion of the film is that it implies a basis for the systematic torment of children by demonstrating how witch-children are created, identified and ultimately eliminated through the power of exorcism. That exorcism isn’t free and, of course, no psychologist or other mental health professional is ever consulted. Religion is only part of the oppression: money is the other.
That is not to say that witches and witch hunts are solely the product of Christian faiths or that they are alien in the Islamic world. Far from it. Belief in Jinn, or the supernatural beings from pre-Islamic Arabian beliefs, is common and their abilities to empower witches are formidable and require suppression. Since 2007, when Egyptian pharmacist Mustafa Ibrahim was beheaded in Riyadh for “practicing magic and sorcery as well as adultery and desecration of the Holy Quran,” dozens of people have been sentenced to penalties that range from death to 1,000 canings and a decade of imprisonment. In many cultures, traditions and faiths, there can be found a real fear of witches. In July of this year,16 men were arrested in India for stripping and beheading a 63 year old woman in Assam State.
While these atrocities must unquestionably cease, it is unlikely they will. It is not a folk belief within a specific tradition that is driving the hysteria. One mechanism that drives the fear is the terrible power held within the word “witch.” The Spanish word for witch, brujo/a, still conveys a dark identity to the practitioners of magic as do similar words for witch in other languages (strega, 巫婆, wrach, hexe). And while those mentioned in the articles above were likely not Pagan nor Witches by the common standards of our community, many of us would also undoubtedly be the targets of fanatical witch hunters. The persecution of Pagans occurs in all parts of the world: it only varies by degree.
Still, many of us fortunately find ourselves in a space of privilege. We live in societies where religious freedoms have helped us reclaim the word witch and temper its meaning. We do still experience persecution but not to the scale of our history or the reports above. In North America, the Salem Witch Trials are distant memory. Nevertheless, The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (a.k.a the Spanish Inquisition) only ended in 1834. It was part of the living memory of some of our most recent Ancestors, and elsewhere in the world events like it and the trials are unfolding today. The combined fear of the feminine and the supernatural potential to upset the power structure, will kindle fear in witches around the world still.
Paralleling the re-introduction of Halloween in the 19th Century, the concept of “witch” has been tempered by commercialization, urbanization, and the rise of witch-positive over the last century. And, I think, it would be possible to argue that witches are perceived in a more nuanced manner in Great Britain and North America.
But the changes in imagery are not enough to promote lasting and effective change in our world to stop the atrocities against children and the elderly. Many people in West Africa, the Levant and Arabian Peninsula all have access to the same imagery through the internet and even through simple broadcast and books. The same is true for other parts of the world. Language and images are one thing; but there is another mechanism of oppression as well that truly magnifies the fear of witches: economics.
Money is itself a structure of power that attracts wickedness far more effectively than a mere word. Economics can alter power structures as effectively as any magic. And losing power is another matter altogether.
This view is not new. Llorente (1822), an Inquisition historian, suggested that the purpose of the Spanish Inquisition was little more than the extraction of wealth on behalf of the Spanish Crown. He referred to it as little more than an income maximizing enterprise to repress groups that could potentially challenge the power of political and religious institutions.
Recent research has supported some evidence of an economic rationale for the Inquisition. Vidal-Robert (2014) found that while the Spanish Inquisition did not have increases in wealth as Llorente suggested, there were other economic effects from it. The Inquisition repressed opportunity by limiting entrepreneurship incentives and activity. At the same time it quelled the use of new technologies – all stifling economic growth. Even still. The Inquisition brought censorship and suppression to the powerless and the different: from Jews to Protestants to Moriscos and from homosexuals to Freemasons.
Indeed, wealth and economic inequality may prove to be critical factors in creating fear and hatred toward witches. Though rising economic opportunity and access to education have worked their magic to promote understanding, peace and equality, failures to create opportunity for everyone may also have serious consequences. As Munro (1976) noted the rise of anti-witch sentiment co-occurred with economic instability. There rise in social paranoia toward witches and other supernatural beings paralleled upsurges in unemployment within urbanized immigrant communities.
Most interestingly, though, Konig (2013) examined an anthropological data set termed the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS) to question whether fear of witches was related to failing economic prosperity, specifically opportunity from agricultural development. In essence, the findings point to yes: the revitalization of agriculture and overall economic success reduced the fear of witches. This is not unique to the continent of Africa, both Latin America and Southeast Asia have also seen the growth in witch fear co-occurring with political and economic oppression (Hayes 2007). And that connection is not trivial: all three areas have experienced the repressive effects of Colonialism and subsequent economic injustice.
Oster (2004) found a similar pattern by looking at a connections between witch trials and climate changes (specifically temperature). She gathered climate records between 1520 and 1770 and found that the colder periods co-occurred with an increase number of witch trials in Europe. Miguel (2005) found a similar pattern in data from Tanzania. Extremes in rainfall, whether floods or drought, resulted in more accusations of witchcraft and ultimately more murders against “witches,” particularly elderly women. When crops fail, you look for a scapegoat. Witches made good scapegoats: they can control the weather. Elderly women have little power in the patriarchy to resist. The connection with agriculture as a proxy for economic bounty is underscored again. The fear that exists in the culture manifested in the word “witch” is magnified by poverty.
But the science also speaks to an advocacy and magic that we can create and sustain as well. Our traditions have collectively explored how systems of social and economic oppression ultimately fail people and Nature. Our demands for social justice include demands for social stewardship of resources and economic opportunity. They include the demand for fair and rational politicians and political systems that promote human dignity and erase the fears that create oppression. Our traditions also demand responsible stewardship and the sacredness of Earth. Climate change will undoubtedly stretch agricultural systems. But our approach to honor and work with Nature is being heard: we are overcoming a systemic deafness that has lasted decades.
While climate science points us in one direction for sustainability, economic and administrative science points us in a parallel one. Advocating for world-wide economic stability and opportunity will undermine witch-hunters the world over. Calling out systems of economic oppression and fostering change by promoting fair and just business practices that create prosperity will ultimately subvert the power of witch-hunters to abuse children and the elderly. Economic and political stability will destabilize the fear needed to justify their actions and will end their control over congregants and communities.
As a Pagan community, we have made tremendous strides advocating for social and economic justice as well as the health of the planet. Tiring as it may sometimes be, we barrel headlong in our demands for all forms of equality and hold ourselves accountable for our actions when we fail to meet the expectations of our Ancestors. Those who have suffered or died under the accusation of witchcraft, whether Pagan or not, have exposed the fear and greed of the powerful.
I often think we make our Ancestors wonder, “What did we do to make that happen?” They see a seriously troubled world. But I also believe that within our Pagan community, our Ancestors are proud of our living voice that echoes their whispers demanding equality, claiming opportunity and wishing to live within and not above Nature. In doing so we honor those that brought us to now. We fulfill all their hopes. And as Samhain approaches, they will whisper their pride. The tongue is indeed powerful.
*Note: Ashé refers to spiritual energy. It is the power to make things happen.
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Hayes, K.E. (2007). “Black magic and the academy: Macumba and Afro-Brazilian ‘orthodoxies.'” History of Religions, 46. p. 283-315.
Koning, N. (2013). “Witchcraft beliefs and witch hunts.” Human Nature, 24. p.158-1814.
Llorente, J.A. (1822). “Historia critica de la Inquisición.” Imprenta del Censor.
Munro, J.F. (1976). African and the International economy, 1800-1960: An introduction to the modern economic history of Africa south of the Sahara. London: Dent.
Oster, E. (2004). “Witchcraft, Weather and Economic Growth in Renaissance Europe.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18. p. 215-228.
Vidal-Robert, J. (2014) “Long-run effects of the Spanish inquisition.“ working paper. Coventry: University of Warwick. Department of Economics. CAGE Online Working Paper Series, Volume 2014 (Number 192). (Unpublished)