Up to the later seventeenth century in Europe almost everybody believed in the reality of witchcraft and the courts tried many suspected witches. A hundred years later most intellectuals had rejected such a belief and the courts no longer accepted this as a subject for trial.
If the beliefs in witchcraft were circular and irrefutable, how were they undermined? If it is so logical, why give it up for the less emotionally satisfying world which we now inhabit where we constantly ask ‘why’ questions and are given such answers as ‘I don’t know’, ‘it is all random’, ‘there is no meaning or pattern’? If witchcraft beliefs help us to overcome feelings of anger and ambivalence (which we continue to feel to this day) by projecting the guilt onto others, why abandon them and leave us alone with both our suffering and our guilt? We seem to have chosen a dry and rather unsatisfactory option, even if in doing so we have saved many poor old people from torture and death.
Some say that the rise of experimental science in seventeenth century western Europe undermined the world of magic and witchcraft. This is part of the story, but we need to remember that many of the early scientists were believers in witchcraft. When I asked my ‘adopted’ niece, who had done biology and other sciences at school in a town in Nepal, whether she believed in witchcraft she said that of course she did. Whenever a mysterious or incurable disease occurred, she would suspect witches.
This suggests that to a certain extent ‘scientific’ explanations in terms of atoms and germs only answer the ‘how’ questions and so the need for a ‘why’ cause is still present. Indeed this blend of science and religion is what a number of distinguished modern scientists who argue for the need for religion often affirm. Albert Einstein caught this beautifully. ‘Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.’
Another argument is that the levels of risk and suffering which were behind many of the accusations began to diminish in the later seventeenth century. It is suggested that magical and witchcraft beliefs bridge gaps in our control of the material world. When we lack technical, organizational or social solutions, we turn to magic.
Faced with rough seas in a fragile wooden boat, we use magical protections. Faced with the hazards of the road, we hang little charms and talismen in our cars. When we do not know why hundreds are dying of a mysterious disease, we use amulets and magical protections. When financial insecurity, crime, disastrous fires are widespread, the beliefs in a magical universe, so the argument goes, tend to rise.
If, on the other hand, the risks from fire, flood, old age poverty, crime or disease are diminished, confidence will rise. The ‘swamps’ of insecurity where witchcraft ‘breeds’, will be drained, so such beliefs will decline, or so it is argued.
There are many difficulties with this argument, although again there is probably something in it. Most of the insecurities continued largely unabated until several centuries after witchcraft accusations and beliefs had died away. People would have had to anticipate a more secure world some generations before it happened. It was not until the later nineteenth century that the causes of disease began to be properly understood, or that public sanitation and financial security for the old and sick improved significantly.
We can see that witchcraft beliefs fluctuate. My visits to a Nepalese village over thirty years gave me the experience of a place which was full of witches and counter-witchcraft rituals in 1970. Twenty years later the shamans were gone and open beliefs and accusations of witchcraft had greatly declined. There was far less interest in magical explanations. For even though the risks remained and the western scientific and technological solutions, medicine, electricity, artificial fertilizer, were largely unobtainable at the village level, people believed in the new technologies as potentially more powerful than spirits or witches.
Certainly one reason for this was largely accidental. Just as some have argued that doctors ‘manufacture’ disease, lawyers encourage disputes, teachers generate ignorance, missionaries imbue a sin complex, so it is clear that having a resident diviner who earns his living by finding witches generates, or at least re-enforces, the belief in witches. Once the shaman had left the village for more lucrative work in the town, witchcraft beliefs, or at least accusations, dried up.
Yet there are other parts of the world where the fear of witchcraft is increasing. It is reported that in many of the cities and shanty towns of Africa the consciousness of witchcraft and the desire to try to protect oneself from it is growing. There are new witch-finding cults and diviners are doing a good trade.
Furthermore, the emotions and fears that lay behind the great witch purges of the past are still with us today. We still engage in ‘witch hunts’, though the subjects may be suspected communists or terrorists. So we refuse to accept the blame. We feel less consumed by guilt when we turn from the hungry and hopeless and blame them for their own condition, whether on the streets of our town or in the developing world. We still surround our risky endeavours with magic, whether setting out on a journey, taking an exam or going to hospital for an operation. We still read the stars and peer into the future with mixed hope and scepticism.