All of us have ambivalent feelings to those around us, even towards our nearest and most loved friends and families. Sometimes we even want to hurt our parents or siblings in a burst of rage. Witchcraft helps to explain and even justify many of these feelings. It helps to shift the blame for them onto the witch. It helps us to feel less guilty.
Many of us have experienced confusion when stopped by a hungry, poorly dressed beggar in the streets, particularly if it is a girl or woman with a baby. They ask for money. Sometimes we give, often we turn away. In our mind we justify our lack of charity: ‘the money would only go on alcohol, it will only encourage further begging’. ‘Anyway’, we tell ourselves, ‘we are not going to give in to menacing or threatening behaviour’. Yet we still feel guilt, which often leads to a sense of impotence or even anger.
In many parts of the world, including England three centuries ago, this was the typical witchcraft situation. A poor old woman comes to the door and asks for help. She is a neighbour or distant relative. We have helped her before, but this time we refuse. Our religion tells us that we ought to give, but our fear of encouraging dependency or the demands of our family leads us to say no. We feel guilt.
As we turn her away we think we hear her muttering or see a scowl on her face. She looks a bit frightening, witch-like. We are apprehensive. A few days later our child is sick or an animal dies. We suspect that her malevolent anger has caused this. We go to a diviner or take a case to court and the inner suspicions are made external. Others support us and report similar incidents. She is shortly imprisoned and tried as a witch. This is a situation I have read about in English court records many times and seen in action in a Nepalese village.
So witchcraft beliefs can be seen to be both intellectually and socially attractive. It should not surprise us that they are so deep-rooted and almost universal. Rather, the surprise is the exception, the societies where witchcraft has, apparently, never been believed in (for example Japan for a thousand years). Even more curious are the places where witchcraft, having been an important belief system then died away, as in England in the later seventeenth century or most of Europe from the middle of the eighteenth century.