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On Witchcraft in Africa

There was a brief article in the magazine “The Week” which prompted this entry in the Weekly Owl.  We in the U.S. and the rest of the English-speaking post-colonial world have arrived at an odd cultural point.  I hazard the guess that most Americans today have at least heard of Wicca.  Many know that it is a “witchcraft” religion.  Fundamentalists undoubtedly reject it as the work of their Devil using the simple logic that reality is divided into two warring camps: The true faithful, and those whose souls are under the influence of the Great Adversary.

We are rather used to that situation and Western pagans have learned to deal with it.  There are still many states in the U.S. where pagans live a closeted existence, but Wicca can adapt to that quite easily since part of its structure emulates the medieval folklore of witches meeting secretly in covens.  They are not very often functioning as cunning folk or healers in their village, much less doing juju for their neighbors.

In Africa, on the other hand, in countries such as Liberia, Ghana, and Congo the cultural situation regarding witchcraft is just as bad as it was in medieval Europe.  Even heads of state have believed in the efficacy of “juju” and have both employed it to try to increase their personal power or launched witch hunts to apprehend and kill witches.  Many people practice witchcraft (or as some anthopologists would prefer to say, “sorcery.”).  Many others hire witches or sorcerers to help them get rich, find love, get revenge, and all the usual things witches have been employed to do.

This stuff is, at least in part, what the thousands of Harry Potter fans would call “the Dark Arts.”  One practice mentioned in the article in “The Week” is using the body parts of albinos for magic.  This practice has resulted in the murder of albino people and has left the entire substantial albino population living in fear.  This sort of magic is the real old magic.  It is not  self-improvement through candle magic or creative visualization.  it is not even raising “demons” using formulas from medieval ceremonial magic.  Those practices seem merely stupid, but not violent and socially pernicious.

I wonder how many modern Western pagans or witches know about how witchcraft has been practiced in the past and is being practiced in the present.  The belief in magic can be nothing more than a type of stupidity, that bane of the human condition.  It is a mistake, a lapse in reason, that can make even highly educated people do things that others would consider bizarre if not criminal, and certainly nothing more than idiocy.

I have been  reading  Paul Tabori’s 1959 book The Natural Science of Stupidity (re-issued by Barnes and Noble as The Natural History of Stupidity in 1993).  The book is, in part, a study of the ability (or even tendency) of humans to believe things that seem utterly absurd and have no basis in actual facts.  There are certain fears and desires instinctive in human beings that can override the capacity to reason, suspend the critical faculty of judgment, and lead all of us into acting stupidly.

Curiously, in American society (at least where I live in Minnesota) calling someone “stupid” is considered a grave insult.  Certainly it may be that.  But what we are rather stupidly ignoring is that we are all stupid at some time or other.  Some people become chronically stupid as some irrational belief takes over their mind to such an extent that they constantly make errors in handling facts.

What we also lose in trying to remove the word “stupid” from polite conversation is the ability to understand the horrifically destructive capacity of human stupidity.  When humans believe that witches are cursing people, or that children who have serious illnesses are “witches” who must be killed, or when they believe such groundless ideas as that another country is hiding weapons of mass destruction, or that our country has the moral right to invade anyone, or that war is an effective way to resolve differences of opinion — these sort of acts of stupidity result in enormous death and suffering.

Tabori notes that among the many kinds of stupidity is prejudice.  A belief founded regardless of fact, and often built upon wild stories passed on from parent to child.  Conspiracy theories are the more serious pathological version of prejudice.  But as Tabori points out, prejudice by itself is more or less passive.  It is intolerance that is the active form, acts of hatred against individuals or groups of people who have been labeled “the Other” and who are imagined to be dangerous.

Antisemitism has been a long-standing historically pervasive form of prejudice and souce of intolerance.  Hitler elevated it to the point of being a touchstone against which every other act of intolerance is measured.  You cannot carry intolerance much farther than genocide.  But what we may fail to stop and consider is that the root of all this horror is stupidity, belief in things that are clearly idiocy to any dispassionate observer who is not caught up in the mass delusion.

Pause to consider the followering proposals:

“Let’s kill all the Jews and that will restore peace and order to our society.”


“Let’s kill all the witches… or, …all the heretics… or all the Westerners…  or all the homosexuals…”

“Kill them!  Bomb them!”

This basic idea that killing off some group of people is going to make things better for us, make us safer, restore our culture to its past righteousness or glory.  This idea has been the thing motivated not only every war and street fight, but also such huge endeavors as imperialism, slavery, the subjection of wives and daughters to male authority, and the subjection of sons to adult male authority.

The latter enterprises have consumed an enormous amount of human energy and resources over the past several thousand years.  Men do not kill women or boys, unless they are incorrigible in their rebellion.  The killing is most often simply killing their independent thought.  It is the use of beatings and the threat of death to subjugate, but more than that to indoctrinate this particular sort of stupidity.  Namely the belief that adult males are smarter, wiser, and more dependable than women, girls, or boys.

Feminist critics have identified this particular naked emperor as Patriarchy, the belief that old men know best and shouild enforce their rule by violence.  So, boys in school are caned, wives beaten, daughters forced to marry who their father chooses, and other women subjected to rape, all on the grounds that men are superior and priviledged — usually bolstered with some religious story.

The willingness of humans to swallow religious stories in place of facts and empirical knowledge is such a vast field of stupidity that one can hardly begin to describe it.  Nearly everyone who believes the stories of their own religion as true also adds the stupid mistake of thinkning that everyone else’s religious stories are false and pernicious.

Now, you may be asking how a self-professed wizard and modern druid can call magic “stupid.”  This is something that, for me, is at the very center of the Bardic system of life.  The bard understands what is story and what is fact.  The druids of old guarded the facts and the bards made sure that the people understood how stories worked.  Now, I have no evidence that this was true in days of yore.  Probably not.  Most likely Celts in the Iron Age and the Middle Ages were just as prone to stupidity as anyone else.  Anthropologists call the belief that religious stories (myths) are actually true “superstition.”  Similarly, belief in the efficacy of magical charms and spells based on “tradition” rather than experience, is another sort of superstition.  But both of these types of superstition are at base human stupidity.

Some historians have viewed religion and magic both as ways to keep the ignorant common folk under control.  Ignorance certainly doesn’t help one to avoid stupidity, but it is not at all the same thing.  The supposed ruling classes of priests were being just as stupid as anyone else.  Once a belief has been embraced, however improbable, fantastical, or idiotic, education only makes the mistake worse.  Occasionally, nowadays, education does prompt young people to recognize beliefs that they have taken as true by nothing more than blind obedience to some authority, be it priest, pastor, mullah, high priestess, or parent.

Modern paganism is founded on the idea that Christian myths are a bunch of baloney, but I wonder how many pagans shine the same critical light of reason on the stories that have become traditional among modern pagans.  The idea, for example, that magical acts (even if disguised as New Age techniques) can cause one to find one’s soul mate, grow rich, and so forth.  The fact that the book “The Secret” was such a best-seller testifies to the fact that we as humans have not overcome this sort of stupidity.

For me, being a wizard means seeking wisdom and loving it.  Wisdom is the opposite of stupidity.  It involves learning from your experiences.  Inner experiences or outer experiences, but not other people’s experiences.  That is, other people’s claims cannot be taken as fact until they have been thoroughly investigated and tested.  The use of sorcery to kill other people is clearly evil, but using it to convince others that what you believe is true instead of teaching them to think clearly for themselves, is practically as bad.  It can destroy a life too, only more slowly.

That is one reason I do not like to “teach magic” — Passing off one’s own beliefs to other people who willingly accept them as authoritative, is never wise and never courteous to the pupil. The human desire to love authorities comes from human stupidity, a kind of laziness that longs to abdicate the work of truth to other people, usually people in the past, or who claim to be passing on amazing magical traditions that have been preserved for thousands of years.

The true wizard must never encourage stupidity in his or her pupils.  Having “followers” is itself an act of stupidity, a mistake of reasonable thinking.  Believing in one’s own super-powers to the point of wishing to gather up students and admirers crosses the divide between wisdom and stupidity.  Why?  Because your experience, and your interpretation of your experience are not the same as “facts.”  Until someone else experiences the same or similar phenomena themselves, and does the work of collecting facts and interpreting them for themselves, they cannot be a wizard.

This criticism could be applied to all education, of course, but in the realm of magic and spirituality, the offenses are far more egregious than in other fields.  There are certainly examples, of course in which teachers taught things that were completely untrue based on authorities.  This was a big problem in the medieval universities and the system that evolved out of it up until well into the 20th century.  A few examples must suffice.  The age of the Earth and humankind was not taught correctly until well into the 19th century.  In physics, Newtonian laws of motion and thermodynamics were taught as if they could explain all natural phenomena until Einstein developed new ideas.  Historians taught that the Roman historians were reliable sources of factual information, and also acepted the idea that the Bible was a historical account of true facts.  Some still want to teach that.  Biologists promulgated the notion that humanity was divided into distinct races with particular characteristics and that white Europeans were just naturally smarter than others.  This teaching ironically proved just the opposite.

In the arts also one can find stupidity.  Until quite recently, professors of literature beleived devoutly that there was a sacred “canon” of English literature that everyone should learn and that teaching students to read books outside of that canon was wrong-headed.  Literature professors still sometimes embrace the idea that interpreting books or poems in the light of sexism or racism is completely illegitimate.  Up until the 19th century many art critics believed that there were established natural laws of painting or drawing, natural laws of what could be called “beauty.”

Today, in a world that has become dominated by advertising as the pervasive form of thinking, people are encouraged to believe that the health and welfare of our culture depends on our buying more things, accumulating stuff.  Advertising and motion pictures also promote the idea that physically beautiful people are the only ones worth consideration.  They promote the idea that infatuation will lead to lasting “true love” even if a girl has fallen head-over-heals for a handsome vampire.

I feel sorry about the situation of witchcraft in Africa, and I know that similar problems exist all around the world.  Our naive belief that magic is benign and harmless is dangerous not because the sorcerer’s apprentice is likely to release powers he cannot control.  It is dangerous because it encourages human stupidity.  And human stupidity kills.  Let us teach wisdom instead, for the stupidity of humans is the number one problem threatening us and our planet.  How?  By questioning any popular beliefs rigorously, especially if we are inclined to accept them on authority.  We should question the belief that the global climate is changing because of greenhouse gasses with exactly the same rigor that we wish our ancestors had questioned the belief that building cars and internal combustion engines was nothing but good for us and harmless to the planet.  Or as we wish our ancestors had questioned the belief that forcing the American Indians off their land was not only good for us white folks but good for them.

The Wizard asks questions. Any wizard who offers you answers should be met with rigorous critical suspicion, not superstitious awe.


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