Why me?

I.M. Lewis

  • Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage by Jeanne Favret-Saada, translated by C. Cullen
    Cambridge, 271 pp, £17.50, December 1980, ISBN 0 521 22317 2

Jeanne Favret-Saada’s book, Deadly Words, subtitled ‘Witchcraft in the Bocage’, deals with a subject of abiding fascination. While there are always people who readily admit to practising good or ‘white’ witchcraft for the benefit of their fellow mortals, witchcraft is usually defined negatively as the ability to cause others harm by the use of one’s psychic power. For historians and social anthropologists, most of whom do not themselves believe in the reality of witchcraft (good or bad), the problem is to decide how to interpret such beliefs when they occur in the cultures and civilisations we study. Until quite recently, the florid ‘witchcraft crazes’ of earlier centuries in Europe have generally perplexed and embarrassed historians, provoking extreme explanations for such ostensibly bizarre beliefs. For Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, writing in 1967, this involved an appeal to the atmospherics of the precarious Alpine settings in which some of our ancestors lived. Their curious witchcraft fantasies, he suggested, might be traced to the swirling mists and rarified air of stormy mountain peaks. Social anthropologists are by no means averse to the attractions of theories based on environmental determinism. But since the publication, over forty years ago, of Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, they have been in the fortunate position of possessing a key to the understanding of these beliefs which makes such reductionist theories redundant. Indeed, since this book was published, the problem has become not so much, ‘Why do some people believe in witchcraft?’ but rather: ‘Why doesn’t everybody?’

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