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Chapter six - Witchcraft in Isolated Societies

by Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.

In many isolated societies, the belief in Witchcraft has never died. The witches don't hide their activities, and live as important members of the society. This happens in the Maori societies of New Zealand, the Barotse of Africa, and the Quiche of Guatemala. Among the people of the Marquesas Islands, witches are respected, but feared as well.

All of these societies believe that magic is neutral. The witches can heal or curse, depending on their character. Necromancy is widely spread, and the witches operate mostly at night.

Spells and incantations have particular power when the witch uses parts of the patient's (or victim's) body. Nail parings and hair are the best. If not available, the witch can use clothes that have been worn by the person. The strongest magical potions are produced from extremely unpleasant ingredients. The witch cooks the brains of dead babies, menstrual blood, bits of human bones, pieces of gravestones, powdered frogs and toads, and bats' blood.

Obviously, all that is a low form of the Old Religion, corrupted over the long centuries. It's not even particularly interesting, unless one is a student of anthropology. But some societies maintained a fascinating relationship to the Old Religion. Two forms are of particular interest. The first includes witches who lived surrounded by the modern world, but maintained the old ways. The second are the truly isolated groups.

An ancient group that has survived in Europe, almost intact, are the Basque witches. They live in the area between Northern Spain and Southern France. Those witches have maintained a system similar to the old covens; they have been relatively tolerated by the Catholic Church for centuries; and they observe a strict code when initiating new converts. Their order is headed by "La Señora," an immortal woman who lives in a cave in the Pyrenees. This is clearly a description of the Mother Goddess in one of her many guises.

The Gypsies in England, at least those involved in Witchcraft, also have a woman as their leader, but she does not have to be immortal. When the leader dies, they "adopt" a new leader. Sybil Leek, the great English witch, was their leader for many years. Obviously, they worship a representation of the Great Goddess, a priestess, rather than the Goddess herself.

Voodoo has its stronghold in Haiti and the West Indies. It is a mixture of African religions and Catholicism, and embraces many gods. In Haiti the principal god is a Great Serpent. Others are Papa Legba, the guardian of death, and Ogoun Badagris, the "Bloody Warrior." However, Jesus and the Virgin Mary are just as important. They put the Christian Cross in every shrine, together with symbols of the pagan gods.

Much magic is performed. Necromancy and animal sacrifices play a part of the ritual. There is also a lot of spirit channeling and healing.

The zombies, or living dead, are controlled by a spirit called Baron Samedi. During rituals, he is represented by a plain wooden cross, preferably taken from a cemetery. The cross is dressed in a tailcoat and a tall hat.

When necromancy is performed, the Baron Samedi is invoked in a cemetery. Three people must be present. They dress the cross on the grave with Baron Samedi's traditional clothes, and burn incense and herbs. Then they request his help. They know the Baron has arrived when the clothes on the cross flap as if disturbed by wind. Some actually claim to see him - a tall black man with white beard and eyeless sockets in his head, though he can see very well.

The participants ask the corpse various questions. If it answers them, the corpse is rewarded by a limited time as a zombie. The zombie acts as the servant of the people who raised him, and performs tasks for them.

An interesting cult exists in Brazil. It is based on spirit possession, and the followers are mostly Afro-Brazilians. The gods had been brought from Africa, originally, but they adapted completely to Brazilian life.

To attend the ceremony, you don't have to be a believer. With the usual Brazilian hospitality, anyone is warmly welcomed. The ceremony takes place in an open pavilion, with the sacred area inside a railing. Many chairs and benches are arranged for the comfort of the spectators. There are drums ready, and an altar with images of the gods and of Catholic saints. Under the altar there are various bowls containing wine, beer, palm wine, and some food. Stones are arranged there for the visiting spirits, who will sit on them and eat and drink the offerings before possessing the mediums.

The whole idea is the possession. With dance, song, drumming and the shaking of some gourd-like musical instruments, the spirits, called encantados, are invited to enter the bodies of the mediums. Excited by the heat, the dance and the music, the mediums go into a trance. One by one, they are possessed by the spirits. The trance goes on almost all night.

Most followers of this system are poor and have extremely hard lives. They believe that the supernatural world helps them survive the difficulties of this world. The encantados enjoy entering the bodies of living beings, so becoming a medium is thus a responsibility of each person toward a specific spirit. They do not deny the Christian God - on the contrary, they believe he is the greatest power in the universe. They love Jesus and the Virgin Mary. But the little spirits of their old religion are much closer. They take an interest in the people's lives, and should be given the pleasure of entering the bodies of the worshipers in return. It is a kind, warmhearted system, and like Witchcraft, interested in achieving results.

But the most important connection is the relationship to nature. Everything in nature is supposed to belong to the encantados - bodies of water, forests, animals and birds. In a charming modern addition, vacant buildings also belong to them, because they claim the land on which the vacant house was built. While the house is occupied, the encantados graciously allow the humans to use it.

It's better not to make them angry. Like all spirits, if not treated properly, they resent it and may do some mischief. But they never kill or torment anyone. At worst, they hide your possessions, slam doors, scare you by whispering among themselves, or appear like phantoms. Generally, it is easy to enlist their help, and there is no need for official witches and sorcerers. Anyone can join.

Brazil has another form of worship, found mostly around the fishing and sailing areas. It centers around the goddess Iemanja. She is a powerful entity, original to Africa, but greatly transformed. Iemanja is the Queen of the Sea, protector of sailors and fishermen. All who die at sea go to her luxurious underwater palace, so the sailors prefer that to dying in bed. But she never drowns anyone herself. She is a kind, magnificently beautiful goddess, occasionally rising from the sea to greet the sailors. They sing songs in her honor at night, when the trail of moonlight shines on the water. The storytellers say this is Iemanja's hair, floating on the waves. Obviously, Iemanja is a manifestation of the Great Goddess in one of her many forms.

The second form of isolated Witchcraft includes Shamanism n Siberia, the Eskimos, the aborigines of Australia and many Native American tribes.

The Shamans work like the traditional, Stone Age witches. They move between this world and the world of the spirits. The people rely on the Shamans to enter the dangerous supernatural world and act on their behalf.

The reindeer herders and the fishermen of Northern Asia live around the western shore of the Bering Sea. Most are nomads who live in felt tents. Imagine living such a hard life, surviving long, harsh and threatening winters. When the day's work is over, there is nothing to do but huddle in a warm, dark tent. Watching the Shaman summon spirits, or have a contest with a disease-producing demon, is good fun. He is also responsible for retrieving your soul if you happened to have lost it through sickness, or if a demon has enticed it into the lower regions of nature. You can always trust the Shaman to get it back.

Shamans in this area have two guardian spirits. One is a kind, understanding spirit of a long-dead Shaman. The other is in the shape of an animal. He can be dangerous and tricky, but very useful.

The Shamans dress beautifully, the clothes made of skins and embroidered with the symbols of the trade. They usually carry a tambourine drum, ready to be beaten when summoning spirits.

At night, the Shaman puts out all the lights in the house or tent. He begins to sing and beat the tambourine. The songs start softly, and then, slowly, grow in intensity. The Shaman goes into a trance. Suddenly, the audience hears other voices, made by various spirits. The audience joins in the singing and drum beating, and starts imitating the sounds of the spirits. The Shaman then is possessed by the spirits, and under their influence gives their messages to the people. Eventually the spirits bid the people farewell. When the lights are on again, the Shaman will be found exhausted, perhaps even fainting, lying on the floor.

When going into the spirit world, the Shaman does it during the day. He is accomplishing this difficult adventure by being in two places at once. The body performs dances in this world, showing the audience what his soul is doing in the other world. The dance may show fights, discussions, or anything else that is happening to the soul. Once the purpose is accomplished, the soul of the Shaman returns to the body.

There are as many female Shamans as males, and there is a complete equality between the sexes. This is because a shaman is considered sexless, and even the males wear female symbols on their decorated clothes.

Anthropologists have often noted that many people do not wish to be shamans. It takes a certain character, and in many ways the personality resembles that of the witch. The Shaman is a loner who likes to spend much time in meditation, and usually has vivid dreams since childhood. Invariably, he or she is quite intelligent.

The similarities among Shamans defy geography. The native diviners of South Africa are recognized early, or may enter the life because of an illness or spirit possession. The same is done by Native Americans. The Woyo woman of West Africa must be possessed by a god, while still young, and chosen for the profession of a diviner. She cannot enter training without it.

The aborigines in Australia are strongly connected with magic and sorcery. Much of it follows the familiar lines, but one practice is of particular interest - death caused by sorcery. If a person committed a particularly horrible crime, the sorcerer places a curse to make him "half dead." The community withdraws from the person, and rites are performed, showing that he is no longer part of the living, but is now a member of the society of the dead. In almost all cases the person actually dies, probably from shock or the lack of desire to live under such circumstances. Add to that the deep-seated fear of sorcery, and a person has no chance to survive at all. Some researchers believe that this was exactly the way Stone Age people punished their criminals.

By observing those isolated societies, and comparing them to Stone Age Witchcraft, much can be learned about the development of the Old Religion. Obviously, the supernatural world plays an important part in many lives, then as well as now. The current follower of the Old Religion is still quite comfortable with this unseen world and its powers.

But the witch has never ignored this world. It's impossible to separate the Old Religion from the living, breathing planet. The next chapter deals with Witchcraft's immensely important relationship with the plants and animals. The love of nature is the core of the witches' being - which is why they see themselves as the Guardians of the Earth.

Go to chapter 7: Flora and Fauna »